Book Review: Oona Out of Order
This Kid

Book Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

I realized that the words most often used to define us were words that described our function in relation to others. Even the most benign words—maiden, wife, mother—told the world whether we were virgins or not. What was the male equivalent of maiden? I could not think of it. What was the male equivalent of Mrs., of whore, of common scold?... Which words would define me? Which would be used to judge or contain?

Last week when I was at a physical therapy appointment, one of the techs asked me for some book recommendations. I told her I always like to talk about the book I’ve most recently finished, and as I had just stayed up past midnight the night before to finish The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, I talked Dictionary of lost wordsabout it first. It is a historical fiction novel based in the time that the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was being compiled, a huge undertaking that ended up lasting roughly forty years. Our protagonist Esme lives with her father, who is working on the OED at the Scriptorium in Oxford, one of several different places where editors and writers worked to research the history and meaning of words. She grows up as the dictionary gets longer, her entire world revolving around it.

I told the PT tech that what the book explores is how the OED is, for all its lofty goals of creating a complete examination of all the words in English since Saxon times, a record of the time it was created. Namely, it was written by white Victorian men, who had a specific worldview. Esme, being a female, brings another perspective to the dictionary. After sneaking out the annotation for the word bondmaid, She starts collecting words on her own, gathered from women, words that the OED editors would never include because they were “obscene” or because they didn’t come from an established print source. “It is a novel that reminded me that we still need feminism” is how I wrapped up my explanation to the PT tech, and then I drove home and thought about it some more, especially since I have been thinking a lot, lately, about what draws me to certain books. For me, feminism in some form is always a part of my favorite books, which is one reason I loved The Dictionary of Lost Words.

The book was different than what I had expected. The reviews I read made me think it would be more of a literary mystery of sorts, a la Possession: A Romance. It isn’t that, really. Instead, it is a book that tells most of the story of a character’s life, covering many years. (I’m a librarian, but I don’t know if there is a name for that genre.) What makes it work—without giving away much of the story—is that as she is exploring “women’s words,” Esme is experiencing many of the things a woman could experience in those years, including some time spent with the suffragettes trying to get the women’s vote in England. In one of my favorite chapters, she’s sent to Scotland to spend a fortnight hiking in order to help her move past a depression she is experiencing, and her gradual return to a happier spirit resonated with me. She takes this trip with her friend Lizzie, who has been a sort of—ironically—bondmaid to her all of her life, and on their last day as they are talking, Lizzie says “God is in this place…I feel him more here than I ever have in church. Out here it’s like we’re stripped of all our clothes, of the callouses on our hands that tell our place, of our accents and words. He cares for none of it. All that matters is who you are in your heart. I’ve never loved him as much as I should, but here I do.” And that so exactly encompasses why I love my Sundays spent in nature church that just on that basis I will love this book forever.

I’m not sure this is exactly what that PT tech was looking for in her quest for books to help her get excited about reading fiction again. It is a slowly moving story, not an adventure, not full of mystery or anticipation. Just the story of a life and how it connects to the larger world. Which is one of my favorite types of books. I’m glad I read it!



I have this on hold - it's being well read in our community & I've had to wait a while! Looking forward to reading it even more after reading your review!

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