Celeste's Reviews > The Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
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really liked it
bookshelves: historical, books-about-books

I received a digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a beautiful book. But I was not prepared for the levels of heartbreak that were going to be present. I kept having to put the book down to try to find my way back into a more positive headspace. Had I read the book in any other stage in my life, I think I would have been able to divorce myself more easily from it and enjoy it more. However, everyone knows this year has been horrendous, and for some reason I was just unable to cope with the relentless hard knocks suffered by the poor protagonist. There was something about the bright tone of the book that made those blows even more terrible, and that’s what kept the novel from being a five star read for me. It was emotionally draining.
“Words define us, they explain us, and, on occasion, they serve to control or isolate us. But what happens when words that are spoken are not recorded? What effect does that have on the speaker of those words?”

I love the idea behind The Dictionary of Lost Words. After reading The Surgeon of Crowthorne, titled The Professor and the Madman in the U.S., Williams found herself intrigued by the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. But she walked away from the reading experience with more questions than answers, especially regarding the lack of female involvement in the OED endeavor. If there were so few women involved, could it be that words mostly used by the under-represented sex were left out? What about words mostly used by other marginalized groups? Were words considered vulgar or distasteful purposely ignored, as well? We know what is present in the OED, but what words were left on the cutting room floor is a mystery. And even for words that do appear in the OED, what meanings were omitted? Over the course of her research, Williams compiled what little information she could on the few women involved in the project, and decided to pen a work of fiction addressing her thoughts about some of these questions, and included as much true information as she could.
“Words are like stories… They change as they are passed from mouth to mouth; their meanings stretch or truncate to fit what needs to be said.”

The fictional character who is the protagonist of the story and the lens through which Williams conveys her questions is Esme, a girl whose father worked on the OED project. Esme was raised in the Scriptorium, the small workshop where the Dictionary was compiled. Words and their meanings were her obsession from a very early age, and it was wonderful to see how that love grew and changed as she herself did. But it seemed to me that the author piled way too much tragedy onto her. I know life was terribly difficult for women during the period in which this book is set, and that such suffering would have seemed minimal compared to what other women endured in reality. However, I didn’t go into this book expecting that level of heartache. Perhaps if I had, I would have engaged with the story in a much different way. But for some reason I expected charming and light, I ended up feeling blindsided.
“… words are meaningless without action.”
“And sometimes action can make a lie of good words.”

Even though I was emotionally unprepared for Esme’s story, I was completely captivated by her views on words and their importance. She felt that her calling was to preserve the words that others felt were unimportant, and I loved getting her inner thoughts regarding her motivations and why she loves words so fervently. I’ve always been enamored by words, and it was really gratifying to be inside the mind of someone who shares that passion. I thought she and her passion were very well conveyed, and I really enjoyed her as a character.
“What words would define me? Which would be used to judge or contain?”

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a beautiful treatise on the importance of all words, no matter who uses them. It’s beautifully written, and truly transported me to another time and place. While readers should be aware that the story is not for the faint of heart and can wreak havoc on the heart, it is absolutely worth reading.

You can find this review and more at Novel Notions.
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Reading Progress

October 25, 2020 – Started Reading
October 25, 2020 – Shelved
November 4, 2020 – Shelved as: historical
November 4, 2020 – Shelved as: books-about-books
November 4, 2020 – Finished Reading

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