Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary
By Henry Hitchings
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 292 pp., illustrated, $24
Samuel Johnson defined ''lexicographer" in his monumental Dictionary of the English Language of 1755 as ''a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words." Like many of his definitions, this one is not only pedagogical but also personal, revelatory, and opinionated.
Hitchings, in this fascinating account of the making of Johnson's dictionary, is most impressed by Johnson's solitary labors and heroic accomplishment. Although he employed secretaries and scribes, Johnson alone designed the shape and scope of the dictionary -- chose the 42,000 words to be included, wrote the definitions, found the appropriate illustrations and quotations. The dictionary became the standard of English for Britain and America for the second half of the 18th and most of the 19th century as well as an instrument of cultural imperialism and an influential work of literature.
Most entertaining are the definitions themselves, especially the humorous, self-indulgent jibes. The definition of ''oats" is a perfect example: ''a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."
Fathers and Daughters
By Benjamin Markovits
Norton, 224 pp., $23.95
Three stories of teachers at a New York private school, separately riveting, become even more engaging as they intersect with one another. With seeming ease and elegance, Markovits brings the lives of one English and two biology teachers into subtle and surprising contact.
Amy, newly arrived in New York from Indiana (via Amherst College), sheds her provincialism as she is drawn into a world of wealth and power by her gallant, cosmopolitan boyfriend. Howard, respected teacher and tolerated homosexual, learns that years before, during a short-lived relationship, he fathered a daughter. Fatherhood is a gift he can accept or reject. Stu, who teaches poetry, fantasizes about a silent and remote student. He imagines that she encourages him, while in fact she is occupied by the final illness and death of her wealthy father. Minor players in one story become the unexpected focus of another, or turn out to have had a crucial if unknown role in another's life.
The stories, told with relaxed confidence, turn out to have been crafted with incomparable care.
By James Lasdun
Norton, 204 pp., $23.95
Growing up in East Germany, Stefan Vogel dreams of life and liberty in America. ''In those dark ages of absolute division between East and West, the very word 'America' seemed to bristle with dangerous, glittering energies."
His own life seems devoid of purpose or joy. Feelings of disappointment, failure, and futility color his thoughts and cramp his actions. Halfheartedly, he pretends to be a poet and intellectual at first to gain status with his family and their friends and later to attract the attention of Inge, a beautiful actress. In 1986, he and Inge buy their way out of Berlin to the West. Miraculously, they make it to New York City, where ''the reality of the country so exceeded my wildest imaginings that I would sometimes find myself in a state of almost painfully overfulfilled expectation." As a young, exotic dissident, Stefan makes useful friends, then worries when the Berlin Wall falls that his special status will be compromised. But America never disappoints him. It remains always the place where ''happiness had a home." It is East Germany that becomes even more squalid and corrupt. Everyone, it seems, worked for the Stasi -- spied, lied, deceived, betrayed, killed.
It is strange and moving at this time in our history to share in Lasdun's vision of America as a place of vitality, innocence, and hope.
Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.