When we were kids, my parents would often drive us to their friends’ house and go out to a dinner dance. These nights were always quite late ones and we would be looked after by one of the older children and tucked up in the master bedroom while our parents danced and dined. On the bookshelf at the back of the bed were stacks of tiny booklets that fascinated me as they were the only place I came across them: Readers’ Digest Magazines.
I could always find something in there of interest. The only story I remember reading, though was called: The Day I was Bitten By A Snake. It was an odd account. A snake to me, living in 1970s England seemed like a mythical creature and the idea of actually being bitten by one the stuff of nightmares. To this day, the story has stuck in my memory because the twelve year old girl telling the story was such a strange narrator.
If I had been charged with telling this tale, I am sure it would have been laced with lurid adjectives and descriptions of pain, but the telling of this account was different becuse it lacked all this. There was an oft repeated phrase she used, ‘It wasn’t our custom’, as in, ‘I did not scream or faint. It wasn’t our custom.’ She used this phrase to describe her reaction to looking down and seeing the snake with its fangs caught in the tights at her ankle.
It wasn’t our custom? It wasn’t our custom? I have never looked down and seen a snake hanging on to my leg, but if I did, I am pretty sure one of the last things on my mind would be community customs. Perhaps in retrospect, she was a member of a cult, I seem to remember this incident taking place in the woods, on a hill – and she was a twelve year old wearing tights. Definitely culty.
My next encounter with Readers’ Digest, though, was with a book I still treasure today. I first saw it, I think, in a bookshop I was working in years ago. I used to read it, but never bought it and then regretted it later when I found it was out of print. Then years later, I found it in a second hand book sale for $4.00 and it is on my shelf now. I was reminded about it by Tim Clare during this epic podcast when he recommended it as a resource for writers. I was so surprised that someone else shared my guilty pleasure that I fetched it down and started flicking through it again.
The book is The Reverse Dictionary, the intention of which is to help you find the word that is on the tip of your tongue. If, for example you can not remember the name for a column with the stone feather work at the top, then you can look up COLUMN and see a list of column types and find Corinthian – and even the name for a couple of common sculptures that are used. Need a good knot? Look it up and find a beautifully illustrated chart of knots, their names and how they are tied. Look up the word DEAD and you can see words from CARCASS to PERNICIOUS (what a great word pernicious is, unless of course it refers to a disease that you have). There is then a straightforward dictionary in the second half of the book that you can use to check your findings. Need weather a climate terms? Done – Fancy impressing your loved ones by recognising the type of cloud in the sky? Easy.
I know that you can find all the answers on the internet now, but you won’t find them in alphabetical order and you will not find yourself browsing the topics in the same way as this book works. I am so glad I found a fellow fan and that I took it off the shelf for a read on Sunday. It was a happy hour, and I was able to show off my knowledge of windmills at work the next day, to what I am sure was everyone’s delight.