'Twas the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Fast-forward to two and a half decades later, "In all the years my thesaurus and I have been together, I’ve found few things as gratifying as reaching for it, consulting numerous entries and reaping the reward of encountering an elusive word," she writes. But the thesaurus is a tool, not a human, she is quick to note. That book of words can only give you what you need to think or write better for yourself, and think yourself you must. "When I taught composition, one of the cardinal rules I imparted to my students was never utilize ‘utilize’ when you can use ‘use,'" writes Leveen. "Thesaurus in hand, a writer can substitute longer, more arcane words just to try to make prose sound more erudite—but end up sounding like a ninny instead." Still, even as her thesaurus has aged, and may not include all the latest words, it's reliable, more comprehensive than just about anything else, and "provides a pleasurable physicality, akin to what some authors experience writing longhand," she gushes. Sounds like true love.
A thesaurus, of course, is not the only book writers and semantic-minded types find themselves intertwined with on some pretty passionate literary levels. Out today from Little, Brown is My Ideal Bookshelf, edited by Thessaly La Force and illustrated by Jane Mount, which chronicles the books that have mattered most to contributors ranging from Malcolm Gladwell to Michael Chabon to Patti Smith to Chuck Klosterman to Jennifer Egan. And many more. According to the book description, "The books that we choose to keep—let alone read—can say a lot about who we are and how we see ourselves." And reference books that we keep for reference can be anything, so long as we return to them over and over again. In honor of these humble workhorses of writing, we asked for nominations of others deserving of their own odes.
Ben Zimmer, linguist, lexicographer, and language columnist, told us, "I wrote my own 'ode to the thesaurus' earlier this year—see my piece for Lapham's Quarterly." In that piece, an adaptation of his introduction to the new edition of the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, Zimmer describes Roget's great tome as "a guidebook to help us travel around the semantic space of our shared lexicon, grasping both the similarities that bond words together and the nuances that differentiate them." He explained further to the Atlantic Wire, "Like Ms. Leveen, I'm a fan of the printed thesaurus, despite the criticism that writers have often heaped on it. But I also think that interactive online tools like the Visual Thesaurus (of which I am executive producer) can complement the experience of printed reference works to create a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of words and their meanings."
Peter Sokolowski, editor at large, Merriam-Webster: "For me it has to be the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. 1600 pages and absolutely fantastic reading. It gives short, informed, opinionated essays on every jazz recording in print, with only the barest of biographical details about the artists—because only the music matters. In rare instances I disagree with the authors, Brian Morton and the late Richard Cook. But because I so trust their taste and the perfect balance of awareness and irreverence they brought to the task, I feel an urgent need to sit down with them to explain what they're not hearing over a pint. They are trusted friends rather than faceless and judgmental arbiters; what they created was a reference book brimming with personality."