Take this sentence, for example

Martin McClellan

April 10, 2018

Good writing elicits a feeling that the words on the page were always meant to be. Like a film, say, where you don't see the thousands of hours and hundreds of people sweating over the details to make a product that feels effortless when projected. Both the writing and film share a secret: they are more than the sum of their parts, but they are made of only of their parts. Sentences are made from words, and words are formed to capture meaning, nuanced or blunt, ironic or earnest, capricious or solemn.

Good writing is made of other writing. Not one writer that ever was didn't show the hand of inspiration. Perhaps some borrow and maybe some steal, but creativity is not a singular mind in an isolated box creating words and thoughts and language from dust. We start each project from the interchange of the known. We start each paragraph with a single word that, unless you are Joyce (and please, one of him was enough) already has meanings riding it. Sometimes it's easy to get lost in them.

John McPhee wrote about finding the right word in his New Yorker essay "Draft No. 4" (which became the titular piece in a book of a book of essays on writing released last year). He talks about going through your writing and putting a box around "any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity." Then, he advises to go to the dictionary and look the word up. Why the dictionary?

"The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus. If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you."

McPhee writes about lifting the definitions which illuminate the words you have boxed, and using those delicious turns of phrases when crafting your own writing. Confronted with writing about canoes, McPhee says "I was damned if I was going to call it a sport, but nothing else occurred. I looked up “sport.” There were seventeen lines of definition: “1. That which diverts, and makes mirth; pastime; diversion. 2. A diversion of the field.” I stopped there."

His final writing used that turn-of-phrase: "A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion of the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself."

(James Somers did a wonderful investigation of what dictionary McPhee was using, since more modern dictionaries are not nearly as lyrical. He not only discovers it, but gives instructions on how to install it on your phone or computer.)

Smart writers like McPHee have used dictionaries to aid their writing for years, and although much of that use comes through well-turned definitions, even more comes from the under-appreciated writing that gives us sunny context in dark horizons of words: the example sentence.

Jez Burrows has written a book of stories made up of example sentences from dictionaries. To do this, he became a dictionary scholar, spelunker; a “valiant and most expert gentleman”, as stated a Shakespeare quote used as one example sentence from an old Webster's.

I know Jez Burrows, and so I must offer a disclaimer that I came to this work with a predilection, and inclination, of admiration.

I have played board games with Jez, and we've met for beers. We’ve talked music and design, and he told me about making this book. But, although I requested a copy, I did not promise a review. He doesn’t know what I’m writing this, and he doesn’t know what I’ll say about his work.

Jez is British, from south, down by Exeter. He's an illustrator and designer. He's published two books, previously, under an imprint he co-founded with illustrator Lizzy Stewart: a faux-encyclopedia titled Reverence Library: Volume One, and the absolutely delightful You Are the Friction, which is a collaboration of illustration and short stories, and worth buying simply if you love good book design, but thankfully the content keeps up with the packaging.

Until recently, he worked as an in-house artist and designer for the Facebook Analog Research Laboratory, a sort of ironic job of hands-on with ink and paper in a castle built on digital data. Which is to say he is not responsible for any leaked data, but maybe certainly for ink smears.

To sum the biography: Jez has a mind that is always searching, always creative, always looking for an amusement or game, and he found a large undertaking and calling in making his book Dictionary Stories.

There are rules here. He lays them out in an essay that opens the book, explaining his process. They allow him to slightly tweak the example sentences his many reference dictionaries offered him, but only in minor ways. He could change tense, for example, or join two sentences together with conjunctions, prepositions, or adverbs.

In the formatting of the book — which he designed the cover of and illustrated, and I suspect had an opinionated say in the clever design by Leydiana Rodriguez — each example word is underlined in the sentence, and the sources are listed at the end of each story. You could recreate his work, if you chose to.

It's laid out like a dictionary, in alphabetical order, the chapter headings setting the story context, from "Aggression, passive" to "zombies". Each story, then, has a title as well, which at times sets weak context, like your friend who titles their Instagram photos with simple descriptions of what you are viewing. But other times, the titles are clever and play against the story under it, or set a deeper context, like a poem, or article on McSweeney's (who Burrows has written for) might. Take, for example, the title: "Why I Cannot Attend Your Baby Shower", paired with the next title "Why You Are No Longer Invited To Our Baby Shower". Each contains a list, and as you might imagine, they're very funny.

Many of stories — and to be clear, these are true stories here, not just listings of words — evoke Lydia Davis, terse and evocative in a pleasing way. The lone story in the chapter "Sea, The" is called "Captain". In its entirety:

The engines stopped, and the craft coasted along. Gulls and cormorants bobbed on the waves. A reverent silence. A memorial to the lost crewmen.

Normally, the boat is crewed by five people. Team members are more effective than individuals working alone. I had to do it. I had no choice.

The first line that convinced me of the strength of Burrow's concept was the opening to the story "Fawns", in the "Animals" chapter: "She drove at a furious speed, the baby deer nestled in her arms."

But just repeating that raises a nit I want to pick: the titles of very short fiction combined with the chapter headers (often, a single story lay in a chapter) give a feel of double-titling, and that bit of formatting cleverness work against the ease and flow of the book. I confess this is "a pedantic interpretation of the rules" (thank you Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus) but it slowed me from and gulping the book down in a sitting or two. Perhaps that's the intention. Perhaps you should keep this book as an oracle, opening to a random page and learning your future.

Hmmm — writing that, I decided to, and and ended up on "House White" in the "Patience" chapter:

He deliberated over the menu. Seventeen years later, he ordered the Pinot Grigio.

This highlights out something else that I'm keen to point out — but how can I not divert here, and look up "keen" in the dictionary? Here are the example sentences from the "New Oxford American Dictionary" (which comes built in on Mac OS X, if you happen to have that kind of computer): "Her keen intellect", "a keen understanding of animal psychology", "a keen desire to learn", "Bob makes it obvious he's keen on her", "I would soon fly to distant stars — how keen!", "the keening of the cold night wind". (Burrows did not include an index, and I confess I do not remember if "keen" was a word he used in any story.)

Ah, but the thing I wanted to mention: Burrows has a great ear for humor, and that plays in the juxtaposition of these stories. The chapter "Babysitting" has one lone story: "Ten Dollars an Hour and Whatever You Want From The Fridge" that is too long to quote here, but had me giggling, as did many other of other stories.

The question I kept asking myself ("members had questioned the cost of the scheme") as I read ("for madam read madman") was "are these good stories?" ("there have been lots of stories going around, as you can imagine") By which I mean, if there was no device ("writing a public letter is a traditional device for signaling dissent") attached to them, would I still appreciate ("I appreciate that you cannot be held totally responsible") them quite as much?

But to ask the question is to miss the point in the grandest sense. The stories are good, the book is delightful, and if you are like me, you will find both new appreciation for dictionaries, and a desire to write from them.

But what do we call them? Yes, "Dictionary Stories" are fine, but I confess I've come to think of them as "Burrows" (Sorry, Jez). As a coining, it's just: they are holes to dig in, in the noun sense, they are the act of searching and finding, in the verb sense. And, of course, there is this comforting example sentence I found when looking up the word: "journalists are burrowing into the president's business affairs."

Here's a burrow I made before I started writing this review, just playing around, in a single dictionary. It was my way of investigating the form, a proof, of sorts:

She studied art in Paris. Her dress was a black low-cut affair. They would hang around all day, bored stiff, the novelty of being a married woman wore off.

I highly suggest you write your own. They're absolutely addicting, and that is the highest praise I can bestow on this work — it is one task to bring good stories to people. It is another to bring a new game, a new form, a new diversion of the field. Burrows' burrows are just that, and if you, or your friends, are the sort who love words and playing with them, you should seek out a copy of this fine new book.

Books in this review:
  • Dictionary Stories
    by Jez Burrows
    Harper Perennial
    April 10, 2018
    256 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

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