Friday, October 9, 2009

'The Write Tools' #1 - Mark Vernon

Welcome to ‘The Write Tools’: a blog series featuring authors, artists and their favourite tools.

Today’s guest is English philosopher, commentator and journalist,
Mark Vernon, whose latest book is Plato’s Podcasts: The Ancients’ Guide to Modern Living.

Mark, what's your noteworthy writer's tool? And can you describe it?

My most valued tool is my dictionary. It's rather battered, having been grabbed, pawed over, and then dropped to the floor, several times a day over many years now. I think it's a Collins English dictionary, though it's long since lost its cover so I'm not sure. That doesn't really matter: any reasonably substantial, single volume dictionary would do as the work-a-day tool for the writer to have at their side.

What does it do for you, that other tools don't? For example, why not a computer dictionary? Why paper?

That it's a paper-based, perfect bound, book-of-a-dictionary - and not some on-screen searchable database - is so important. The bulk of it, the ability to browse it, the very effort required to handle it, somehow nurtures the effort to find the right word. The empty box in a spellcheck facility, blinking vacantly at me, would not help me to achieve that goal. I wouldn't have the first idea how to begin my search. But with a book, I can turn to a page, see one word that sparks thought of another, cast my eye down related words, and then land on the one that means what I want to say.

I know you're not a technophobe. You don't think a computer program could replicate this somehow? What does paper have that a screen doesn't?

I don't think a computer program could, no. A book is a physical object whose very physicality tells us a tremendous amount that helps us navigate it, and its contents. We can feel where we are in the world of words by handling a dictionary, and feeling is as much a part of knowledge for we humans as facts: our bodies enable us to feel our way through the world as much as our minds. That's why books are such a successful communications technology.

And why that dictionary in particular? Is it just the first one you bought, or was it a gift, or...?

To be honest I don't remember when I acquired the tattered friend by my side, though if one day it completely falls apart, I'll feel like I have to get to know another book all over again.

Why are these things important to your writing? Surely dictionaries are for the uneducated or ill-informed?

The more you work in words, the more important a dictionary becomes. I suppose it's partly about expanding your vocabulary, partly about making sure you use words accurately, partly just about the sheer joy of words.

And do you have several paper dictionaries for different purposes, or just the one, beloved, dog-eared book?

I do have another dictionary, a multi-volume Oxford one, that sits imperiously on my shelves and which I consult with more care, when I need to do more than just find a word - but perhaps to delve into its deeper meaning or origins.

Do you every worry about being too bookish? Nietzsche was famously suspicious of the stifling, musty atmosphere of books. Are you? Perhaps you should just forget about the dictionary, and rely on your own inventiveness?

Well Nietzsche was a philologist before he was even a philosopher, of course. Words were of the essence for him, so I don't suppose he was short of a dictionary or two. As to too many books in general, that is a risk. Anyone who loves books will have bought one or two, only to place them on the shelves unread - though somehow assuming they'd imbibed its contents just by being in its presence. And I guess Nietzsche also shared Plato's conviction that philosophy must be done primarily in a life as it's lived, if it is to be done anywhere.


genevieve said...

Nietzsche the fresh air man? that's nice. Vive la dictionnaire. I can vouch for the associative properties, especially with a foreign language one written in that language. So much more to absorb.

Rachel Fenton said...

I've never heard a book called a "tool" before - I like it!

Damon Young said...

Genevieve: yes, every dictionary's an adventure of sorts. But Nietzsche would counsel: good ideas come from walks, not reading!

Rachel: it's definitely a tool. Perhaps not an instrument, as we commonly think of it. But a tool nonetheless.