abecedarian

What are the things from your childhood that brought you such great delight, and that still bring you that same kind and degree of delight? And not just in a nostalgic way, like a sweet memory—ah, I really used to love playing with Lincoln Logs and TinkerToys (I did)—but the same delight now? Mine, quite reliably, are

  • pillbugs
  • trilobytes
  • dinosaur eggs
  • the ABCs

The whole pillbug thing is obvious, given where you’re reading this. I just love them so much, and I do sincerely have this little pretending that I’m their queen, but only [still] in the most benevolent way. People always send me news stories they read about pillbugs. 🙂

trilobyteAnd trilobytes! They deserve that exclamation point! It’s not shown on the cover, but that book actually has an exclamation point after the word trilobyte in the title. (If you want to read it but don’t want to spring for the book, here’s the full text, for free.) Trilobytes are cool, man. So cool. And I don’t know why, but my copy, received as a gift the year the book published, spells the word correctly, with a y, and does have the exclamation point. Hmmm.

eggsDinosaur eggs, my dearest, fondest, most intense dream for myself when I was five was to grow up to be a paleontologist and discover dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert. Oh how I longed to do that. I think a big cache had been found in those years and it just dazzled me. The idea that dinosaurs came out of eggs was just so mind-blowing, and I longed to whisper away the sand to see the long curve of one of those eggs. Also: Mongolia? I want to go there so so badly. Ugh. Still do, probably never will get to go.

And it’s not that I like to sing the ABC song, nor is it an appreciation for the alphabet because it makes words and I love words and sentences and paragraphs and books oh books(!), it’s a thrill about the letters themselves, how they evolved, how they came to be, how we use them, how we change them, the way these little squiggles get bent along the way. When I was a kid we had a set of World Book Encyclopedias at home, just like these:

wb

I read every word of every entry in every volume, beginning at A and ending in Z. Examined every chart — and they were clever, like the one that showed cotton production rates in cotton states used a little cartoon boll, one boll represented however many tons or bales or whatever the unit of measurement, so I’d count the bolls for each state and multiply and just have such fun with that. Cow heads for beef production. (Clearly the ones I remember most easily related to Texas.) I studied every picture, read every footnote, every reference citation. Beginning to end, repeat. In between I’d read the dictionary, a never-ending source of joy, a rabbit hole I’d love to get lost in.

But the reason the World Book is relevant here is that each volume opened with an entry about the letter itself. There were drawings of the various ways the letter had been written, by such mysterious people as the Phoenicians and the Sumarians and the Romans and the Greeks, the way each group changed it, how it was pronounced and from what it was derived. Although I loved almost all the entries in the whole encyclopedia (but not the one with the lamprey, I still remember hating that one), it was the ones about the letters of the alphabet that made me feel so excited I almost couldn’t hold it. Literally. I felt filled with electricity and wonder. Phoenicians! They were sea-going people, wow, Phoenicians. Their version of the letter reflected their culture, wow. All that excitement is filling my body just writing these words, it is so compressed in my chest I feel like maybe I need to get up and run in a little circle for a bit.

I follow The House that Lars Built on Instagram, always so inspirational, and it turns out that she does a book club! (Follow here, it’s amazing.) The last book they read was Drew Barrymore’s memoir, and when she announced the next one…. ALPHABETICAL! A book about the alphabet!! It’s a whole book, an expanded version exactly of those little entries in the World Book. Obviously I had to get it. It’s so rare that I buy a physical book, but come on. The alphabet.

abcHow every letter tells a story, the subtitle. I’m just in the A so far, but it’s been thrilling. I meet my old friends the Phoenicians. There is a luxury of time and space, so the information about the letters is much more involved, and he is as twitterpated by the alphabet as I am, so he writes with such wonder about this system we have created.

Want to know about A?

‘A’ starts its life in around 1800 BCE. Turn our modern ‘A’ upside down and you can see something of its original shape. Can you see an ox’s head with its horns sticking up in the air? If so, you can see the remains of that letter’s original name, ‘ox,’ or ‘aleph’ in the ancient Semitic languages. By the time the Phoenicians are using it in around 1000 BCE it is lying on its side and looks more like a ‘K’. Speed-writing seems to have taken the diagonals through the upright, making it more like a horizontal form of our modern ‘A’ with the point on the left-hand side. The ancient Greeks called it ‘alpha’ and reversed it, with the point on the right-hand side, probably because, eventually, they decided to write from left to right. Between around 750 BCE and 500 BCE the Greeks rotated it to what we would think of as its upright position. The Romans added the serifs which you can see on inscriptions like Trajan’s Column in Rome.

I wish there were more drawings, I’d like to see that A on its side, first to the left then to the right (the World Book showed all the variations), but that’s OK. His own delight in the material is happy-making.

And of course he speaks more broadly about these issues. I loved this line: “It seems odd to think that the reason why I say a ‘j’ sound and that there is a letter for that sound is because, nearly a thousand years ago, in the wars between the tribal warlords of northern Europe, a French-speaking group got the upper hand in the part of the world where I happen to live.”

I don’t know why my tiny-girl delight still lives in me so purely at the age of 57, but isn’t that a gift? You probably don’t have this thing with the alphabet, but I’m sure you have your own things like this. Of course as always I’d love to hear about them. I think these things, especially, are tremendous gifts to us, and they tell us something about each other. I can also see that my childhood delights are indicators of the grown-up I would someday become. Add in donuts and I am complete. 🙂