Lisa Chen


Professors and Madmen


1. Dictionaries are the most requested type of book by people in prison. The letters arrive in the hundreds from across the country to Books Through Bars, an all-volunteer outfit that operates from the unfinished basement of a used bookstore along the Red Hook waterfront.

“I am an inmate at P—— State Prison. I am doing six-and-a-half years and am at the beginning of my sentence. I am interested in a dictionary. I’m not sure if you are able to send me a specific one, but I’m very interested in the ‘New Oxford American Dictionary Third Edition.’ I can receive hardback at my custody level.”

“I am currently housed at the L—— Unit. I am requesting two dictionaries. First a Merriam-Webster English Dictionary that has more than 150,000 entry words. Second I am requesting a Spanish-English dictionary with more than 150,000 words.”

The steep stairs from the street-level hatch doors descend into a low-ceilinged space heaving with bookshelves organized by topic and genre (biography, U.S. history, self-help, etc.). Some letters are written on quarter slips of paper, carefully torn from an eight-and-a-half by eleven sheet. Nearly all are handwritten. Some requests are floridly expressed: “If you would be so kind as to deliver a few books for my perusal I shall be eternally grateful.” Others appear tentative on the page, the words like notes on an instrument seldom played. “I am currently incarcerated here in Texas. I’m humbling asking if you could issue me a dictionary. I’m very ambitious to learn more about the written word. This would be an enormous gift I receive.”

Readers in prison, just like readers on the outside, love their thrillers: King, Patterson, Koontz. Fantasy and sci-fi have their fans; there is steady demand for books on Egyptian, Aztec, and Nordic history. And always the stack of dictionary requests accumulates, sometimes thirty letters thick, waiting to be filled.


2. Malcolm X, once asked by a reporter what his alma mater was, famously replied, “Books.”

The dictionary was his first love and deepest well. While locked up for a series of robberies, Malcolm turns, for the first time in his life, to writing letters. He who had prided himself as the “most articulate hustler out there,” able to command attention with the authority of his speech, found himself straining against the limits of his vocabulary. Through the prison library, he gets his hands on a dictionary (in Spike Lee’s biopic, it’s a Webster’s Collegiate, fifth edition). He spends two days just turning the pages. Finally decides the thing to do is to copy an entire page of entries by hand. This takes him an entire day. He reads everything back to himself in his own wobbly handwriting, all those words he hadn’t known existed. He copies another page, and another after that.

Ten p.m. is lights out. But he figures out the light from the corridor outside his cell shines just brightly enough to read by if he positions himself on the floor. The night guards make their rounds at one-hour intervals. When he hears one approach, he leaps back onto his cot and pretends to be asleep. When the footsteps fade, he’s back out on the floor, book in hand. In his autobiography, he wrote: “Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.” He was twenty-three years old.


3. My eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Peterson, once gifted me a dictionary. I can no longer remember the occasion. On one of the front pages she had written: “May time fulfill the promise of your pen.” The slight Victorian tendency of her syntax is what made the inscription memorable. Even then she was already quite old: so old that her entire existence did not register on the Internet, so I discovered when I tried to find a trace of her some years ago. She favored odd-colored lipstick, coral pink or orange that sometimes matched her polyester dresses. She wore pantyhose unfailingly. She was so old we were utterly uninterested in her private life, if it even existed.

The dictionary was red, a Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary, 1984 edition. For decades it moved wherever I moved, to my college dorm in Berkeley, three different rooms at “Le Chateau,” the ramshackle student co-op on Hillegass Avenue, since shuttered after neighbors complained of noise, garbage, and rampant drug use. Next came apartment shares on Blake Street; University Avenue across from a gas station; San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, back when Powell’s Soul Food Place was still there, broadcasting an all-gospel radio station from the premises. Then followed several apartments in Iowa City, and back to San Francisco again.

I searched for the dictionary recently on my shelves but it wasn’t there. Had I not packed it when I moved to New York? Somewhere along the line I must have overcome my sentimentality and donated it to Goodwill, thinking someone else would need it more than me. Or was it simply that the Internet had arrived and I had no more use for it?


4. “Post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year. As in, “belonging to a time in which the specified concept—truth—has become unimportant or irrelevant.” As in: Bowling Green massacre; as in: “Russia is fake news.”

The function of the dictionary is to offer definitive definitions, but from its very beginnings there was fierce disagreement over whether this was even possible, much less desirable, this turning of butterflies into specimens. One should always be wary of purists. Samuel Johnson: “He, whose design includes whatever language can express, must often speak of what he does not understand.”

In Spike Lee’s movie, Denzel-Malcolm sits side by side with his jailhouse mentor in the prison library, a dictionary between them. Together, they look up the definition of “black” (the camera zooms in on the page, close enough to see the grain in the paper): Soiled with dirt, foully or outrageously wicked, sullen, hostile, forbidding. Then “white”: Innocent, pure, free from spot or blemish, without evil intent, harmless, square-dealing. Denzel-Malcolm scowls, all but pushes the book away. “This is written by white folks, right?”

Learning the meaning of words so you can undo them. Read their shade. Learning to read a sentence like an ace poker player reads the table—the weight shifting from one butt cheek to the other, a chin scratch, the hardening of a blank expression. Learn the words so you know what’s behind Sentence Number Two. Read the silences too. Develop a second sense for those who would cage you.


5. My stepfather, a Vietnam vet from rural Alabama, owned at least three different Chinese-English dictionaries. I found them, dusty and untouched on a bookshelf when I was clearing out his house in Berkeley to put on the market. Two months earlier, he had moved to a residential care home, precipitated by decades of depression and alcoholism. By then he and my mother were long divorced. Finding those dictionaries was like uncovering artifacts of their courtship.

One dictionary was hardback, at least four inches thick; another was slim, bendable, easily slipped into a coat pocket or the back of your jeans. My stepfather had signed up for the Army four months before the draft. Like all the other recruits, he took the military’s standard multiple choice language aptitude test. He scored uncommonly well—so well the Army sent him to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey to learn Chinese so he could intercept enemy radio communiqués.

Learning Chinese probably saved his life. He spent most of the war monitoring and transcribing tapped transmissions in a Quonset hut in Phu Bai, where the U.S. military had established a radio facility. After the war, he moved to Taipei and began teaching English. My mother was one of his students. For most of my childhood she kept a Chinese-English dictionary on her bedside table with a salmon pink cover and a black placeholder ribbon, pages thin as a Bible’s. You might say my mother’s desire to improve her English paired with my stepfather’s acquisition of Chinese are how I came to be writing this in English, from my home in Brooklyn, New York.


6. The Oxford English Dictionary famously took seventy years to complete and will soon be a movie starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn. Already photographs from the film set are surfacing online of the actors in period top hats and bushy beards.

Twenty years ago, Gibson bought the rights to Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, an account of the making of the OED and the relationship between its editor and one of its most prolific and reliable volunteer philologists, an American named William Chester Minor. Gibson doesn’t play who you’d think; he leaves the red meat to Penn. A surgeon by training, Minor contributed thousands of quotations to support the definitions of words. He did so while imprisoned in an asylum for the criminally insane in Berkshire. The origins of his incipient madness began in the battlefields of the Civil War, treating the Union wounded, and came to a head years later when, under a psychotic delusion, he shot and killed a complete stranger—a young coal stoker—in the streets of a London slum. Minor spent nearly the rest of his life in an upper chamber of the asylum with his collection of rare antiquarian books and his solitude. Food and drink arrived through a slot in the door.


7. In the 1990s my college boyfriend worked at the Super Crown Books on Van Ness in San Francisco. I still remember the night he came home from work, simmering with outrage. It was the winter holiday; the company had distributed a bonus on everyone’s paycheck. His was an algorithmically concocted bean count of $6.04. He didn’t quit right then. He bided his time. On his last day he parked his beat-up Honda hatchback outside the store’s loading dock and heaved a Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary—all twenty-three pounds of it—into the trunk of his car as a final two-handed-two-volume-fuck-you. I hope he still has it. If he does, he probably doesn’t use it much. It’s too ungainly for regular use.

My husband got his OED, the same one that comes in two volumes (A-O and P-Z) in a black slipcase and a tiny drawer for storing a magnifying glass, decades ago as a gift premium for subscribing to the New York Review of Books. Eugene bought his set for $20 on 125th Street when he first moved to New York and was sharing a one-bedroom with two friends in Morningside Heights. Twenty bucks felt like a lot at the time, he remembers. He walked away, then changed and his mind and walked back. Slipped the bill out of his wallet and lugged it back to his apartment and to every apartment he’s lived in since. These days his OED doesn’t get much use except when his toddler son plays with the magnifying glass.

When I asked my ma if she remembered where our family’s OED came from, she said she sent away for it after seeing an ad in a magazine. But why? For you and your sister, of course! Like the massive leather-bound tome with gilded pages of Shakespeare’s collected works and The New Yorker subscription she got me for my birthday when I was in high school, the OED is a totem of aspiration, which makes it an extravagant and classically immigrant gift.


8. As the Bible wards off vampires, the dictionary wards off ignorance, delivering not the word of God but the words of men. The immigrant, the refugee, the poorly literate, all of us who arrive at our native tongue or new tongue past the age of childhood, can look up the simplest of words without judgment. The dictionary understands our private shame, the part of us that cringes when a preening Elizabeth Berkley pronounces Versace “Versayce” in Showgirls, even as its pronunciation guide never quite delivers us absolute assurance that our foreignness or lack of sophistication won’t be exposed.


9. A holding in the stacks of the library of the Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri: Prison Dictionary, the title in gold lettering across its slate cover.

The story with Bonne Terre: the French named the town Good Earth because it was once home to the world’s largest lead ore mine, but that all shut down in the sixties. Today the biggest industry in the area is the prison, which sprawls fifty city blocks across a former hay pasture and has more than 850 full-timers and contractors on its payroll. According to the latest census, prisoners account for more than a third of the county’s entire population.

How the dictionary came to be: An English professor from Saint Louis University who runs a writing workshop at the prison assigned his students the task of compiling words limited to the patois particular to the ERDCC, a study in hyper-local linguistic development. “Cadillac” refers to a cup of coffee with all the works—sugar and cream. A newly arrived prisoner in his orange jumpsuit gets called a “pumpkin.” The students in the workshop deliberated whether to include “dun dun” (a derivation of “dungeon”) to describe solitary confinement. Language dies from disuse here as it does anywhere else. Only old-timers seem to use it anymore and their ranks are thinning. In the end, the word went in, on the condition that “almost obsolete” be appended to its entry.

And yet: The dictionary can only be found at the prison library. The professor won’t allow anyone on the outside to handle it. He’s afraid the words will fall into the wrong hands. “The worst result would be for people to use the words in their own speech in a way that trivialized the real issues that are manifested in these terms,” he told a local radio reporter.

The prisoners who worked on the dictionary see it differently. One said he hoped the dictionary would help ensure that people behind bars aren’t forgotten. Another insisted he wanted the dictionary to stand as proof that people like him are making constructive use of their time, not just “sitting in a cell.” Like any scholar, they want the fruit of their hard work out in the world. But they don’t have the final word on the topic.


10. What happens to dictionaries in prison once their owners are released?

Best to leave them behind for others to use, where they’ll have the greatest value. Perhaps bequeathed to a youngblood who showed some aptitude. Above all, it is a tool and tools can be replaced. The man, newly paroled, imagines he’ll buy himself another with his own paycheck, a new edition with a crisp cover. He’ll keep up, he tells himself. But now is not the time. His ex wants him off her couch by next week. She’s jittery his record will be found out and she’ll lose her apartment. Between the mold and the roaches, he’d be doing her a favor. The projects are called projects because they were an idea in some bureaucrat’s head and the project has flat out failed. You worried about me when you should be worried about them tearing the whole thing down like they did with Cabrini Green. The address is all I really need anyway to write down on my resume. Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Yes/No. For someone to mop the floors, take out the trash? If yes, give details. To bus tables, wash dishes, change bedpans? When I get my own apartment the goal is to set up a library. Just a small shelf to begin with, hardbacks only. The dictionary will have pride of place. But now is not the time. It’s taking all I have to survive out here.


11. Ambiguity of the phrase out of time. To be out of time is to run out of it, but it can also mean to exist outside the realm of ordinary time. The condition of the prisoner is caught between these two definitions. He sleeps, eats, drinks, does push-ups, squats, talks, thinks, shits, reads—all while acutely aware of the time he is doing, in a place that removes him from the rhythms and trajectories of ordinary life. Free time.


12. Something of the infinite is lost when a dictionary is not contained between two covers. Search for a word in a print dictionary and your eye wanders to its neighbors on the page; serendipity of chance proximities. The digital edition of the next OED is expected to drop in 2034. There will be no print edition because there is not enough demand. Will print dictionaries go extinct someday, the ones that once walked the earth turned into fossils? Where will they all go? In America, they go to prison, where they get their second life. They serve the sentence.




Lisa Chen is the author of a book of poems, Mouth (Kaya Press) and was recently an Emerging Writers Fellow at the Center for Fiction. Her work appeared most recently in Catapult and StoryQuarterly. Born in Taipei, she now lives in NYC and is working on a nonfiction work about time and the duration artist Tehching Hsieh.