three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
21-Mar-Apr-2006
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The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary

A-DefiningTheWorldIn 1746, a young English writer embarked on a Herculean endeavor: to write a dictionary of the English language. Samuel Johnson spent nine years compiling his famous dictionary, whose creation Hitchings documents in Defining the World. Johnson’s dictionary was far from comprehensive—about 43,000 entries, compared with more than 400,000 in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary—and it was colored by his own prejudices and parochialism. Yet the book immortalized Johnson, and it would remain the standard dictionary of the English language for more than a century. Many writers have devoured the book—which is tinged with Johnson’s dry wit—from cover to cover.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 292 pages. $24. ISBN: 0374113025

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Defining the World is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. Hitchings is a buoyant, zestful writer, sympathetic to Johnson throughout, but attentive to his failures. Hitchings himself has a keen lexicographic bent, and sprinkles his pages with illuminating glosses on Johnson’s definitions." Matthew Price

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Hitchings manages in this short book to weave rather seamlessly the details of Johnson’s life, character and career, his methods of going about his work, and the characteristics of his society." Frank Wilson

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Like a good dictionary, Hitchings’ work itself is chockablock with enough tidbit and trivia to delight even the looniest of logophiles. … He is interested, as well, in the life of Samuel Johnson, … in the history of lexicography and in this marvelous evolving communal creation, the English language." Daniel Dyer

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Defining the World is itself organized in dictionary fashion, as a series of shortish chapters arranged in alphabetical order, from ‘Adventurous’ to ‘Zootomy,’ and this proves to be an inspired way of navigating through Johnson’s text; Hitchings, despite needing to do a little more dictionary work himself … is an inventive and entertaining guide." Charles McGrath

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Hitchings skillfully re-creates Johnson’s beloved London, a gin-soaked city of commercial ambition, petty jealousies, and danger lurking down dark alleyways. This was the age of Grub Street, of hacks hoping to make big money with their pens." Chuck Leddy

Wall Street Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Defining the World is not quite perfect. … It has stylistic lapses, especially in the first third of the book, where metaphors are sometimes tortured. … More important, Mr. Hitchings’ discussion of Johnson’s views is not always reliable." Stephen Miller

Critical Summary

What Simon Winchester did for the Oxford English Dictionary in The Meaning of Everything ( 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2003), Hitchings does for its predecessor, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. Hitchings’s delightful book is infused with details about the history of lexicography and the English language, and he places the dictionary in the context of Johnson’s difficult life and the fame that followed. Cleverly written (though Hitchings misses a few definitions here and there), Defining the World is organized much like a dictionary, with each chapter dubbed with a word from Johnson’s tome, including the definition. Hitchings documents Johnson’s arduous labor and the impact that the book continues to have on English language and literature.