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Before Google and spellcheck, every home, student and office had a dictionary, either hefty or concise. Dictionaries not only provide a means to make sense of the incomprehensible, they chart the development of culture as new words make their appearance. They offer an ordered and complete world between two covers, alphabetised so neatly. These books either feature dictionaries both real and imagined, or are structured as dictionaries, but none of them achieves the unity and order to which a dictionary aspires.
· The discovery in a second-hand bookshop of a decades-old A-Z of style offers Louise the exciting possibilities of transformation in Elegance, the debut novel by Kathleen Tessaro.
· Before he quits, the aristocratic protagonist of The Swimming Pool Library is part of a project compiling a dictionary of architecture, in the highly sexed and highly literary novel by Alan Hollinghurst.
· The biographical novel, According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge, offers a sad portrait of the last years in the life of the lexicographer Samuel Johnson, author of A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).
· A family develops its own language and defines its own world in the novel/memoir by Natalia Ginzburg, Family Lexicon, describing the everyday life of an eccentric Italian family from the 1920s to the 1950s.
· A series of braided stories celebrate the word-nerds who compile dictionaries, even when it drives them mad, in The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams.
· Telling the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is the history by Simon Winchester, The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words, describing the contribution to the project made by a retired army surgeon who was, at the time, resident in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.
· A little girl spends her childhood under the table where her father is compiling the Oxford English Dictionary; only gradually does she realise the gendered nature of the exercise in The Dictionary of Lost Words by Australian Pip Williams.
· The manipulation of language and the art of coercion are taught to a select group of students in the thriller Lexicon by Max Barry, the best of whom graduate as “poets”.