Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings

By Jez Burrows

I love this book’s premise: weaving together an amalgamation of example sentences, from twelve different dictionaries, into short narratives. Literary bricolage, with clear echoes of Oulipean experimentation.

It’s a fascinating creative constraint, and there seems to be real craft in the process, first with curation and then with assembly — not only mining texts for material orthogonal to their intended use, but stitching these fragments together, again and again, into something that coheres as story.

Burrows clarifies early on, with a simple, clearly defined set of rules, how the constraints are implemented — for example what sorts of small edits are permitted for readability. He also mentions in an introductory note that the corpus he draws on, this gargantuan database of dictionary examples sentences, is itself incredibly diverse, drawing on all sorts of prior art, from novels to drama to journalism.

These are sentences that tend to be short and simple, ostensibly chosen for their ability to stand alone, but it’s worth noting that many of them already have lives beyond the definitions in which they appear. This process recontextualizes them further, imbuing the sentences with all sorts of additional meanings and extended relationships that didn’t exist previously. I imagine chance and serendipity play a large role; sometimes one has only to sit back and watch with delight as words reach out to other words and extend their greetings.

This whole process results in quite a variety of stories and forms, from “notes to recipes and instructions, to love stories, haunting tales, humorous interactions, bittersweet memoirs…” The structure of the book itself mirrors the experience of flipping through a dictionary; the table of contents is alphebetized, with the stories categorized by words that indicate their themes.

Some reviewers love the stories themselves; others find the book more an exercise in style. Personally I think it would be a miracle to achieve both stylistic innovation and narrative excellence equally well, and fairly brilliant to achieve both at all!

It seems the book is meant to be digested slowly; pondered. Many of the stories seem to border on poetry, achieving a sort of hybrid prose-poem collage form by turns lyrical and absurd. At least one review notes that some of the shorter, list-based pieces particularly shine.

One review concludes nicely as follows: “Dictionary Stories is a moving work. If you need me, I might be found playing in a corner with my dictionary.” May we all be inspired to play with our dictionaries!

Additional information:

  • ISBN: 978-0062652614
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial

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