The Book That Made Me A Reader
Esmeralda Santiago on the dictionary
Before I loved reading, I loved words. Palabras, in Spanish. When I was eight in Puerto Rico, a traveling salesman came to our one-room schoolhouse right in the middle of class. Inside a black case he carried a heavy, thick book with a dark red cover, its pages gold-deckled with semicircular indentations the size of a fingertip, evenly spaced along the side. He placed the book on Miss Maysonet’s desk, and those who already knew the alphabet were invited to circle around him. He opened it to two pages facing each other with three columns, the text in tiny print. There were emboldened words, mysterious signs /, ||; accents ´ ~ ¨; punctuation — ¡! ¿? (), and slanted words that seemed about to slide off the pages. The very first word at the top of the left page was lapislázuli.
Miss Maysonet kept the book on the corner of her desk, and encouraged us to use it. During recess, while my amigas jumped rope and played hopscotch under the tropical sun in the dusty yard, I curled up in a shady corner, reading the dictionary. Six years later, my family moved to New York. At the Bushwick Public Library in Brooklyn the dictionary had its own altar. It had many more pages than the one Miss Maysonet bought from the traveling salesman in Puerto Rico. I flipped to the middle, and the first word on the left upper corner was leprechaun. The symbols for the pronunciation had an upside down e and an ô. I realized just how hard it was going to be to learn this foreign language, where every vowel can have a completely different sound, even though it looked the same as the vowels in Spanish. And what did it mean when a letter was upside down?
It’s been decades since my encounter with a dictionary, but a single word still keeps me following the trails of its definition. Shuttlecock to battledore. And then my eye catches baudrons on the column alongside, and before I know it I’m at blucher. These words are not in my everyday speech. They’re a feast for my eyes and ears—blunderbuss, qualia, zeugma—and keep me curious, interested in the world, informed.
The dictionaries on my shelf tell the story of my life: Spanish/Spanish (my first language); Spanish/English (as I learned the second); English/English (as it became my everyday language); English/French (high school and college courses); English/Turkish (a seven-year lover); Yiddish/English (so I could banter with my Jewish in-laws), Portuguese/English (so I could talk to the woman who cleaned my house). I also own dictionaries for Russian and Italian because I spent a month in Moscow and another in Rome, and thought I could learn those languages through immersion. Nyet.
Whenever I long to read something that will keep me enthralled, entertained, and instructed, I turn to a dictionary. I invite the words to lead me, each one a story.