"Now when our ship had left the Ocean River rolling in her wake
and launched out into the open sea with its long swells to reach
the island of Aeaea—east where the Dawn forever young
has home and dancing-rings and the Sun his risings—
heading in we beached our craft on the sands,
the crews swung out on the low sloping shore
and there we fell asleep, awaiting Dawn's first light."
—The Odyssey, XII, 1-9, Homer, Translation by Robert FaglesWhen I was a kid, my mother bought an entire set of encyclopedias and a two-volume set of the Funk & Wagnalls New Comprehensive International Dictionary of the English Language, the Deluxe Reference Edition, from a smooth-talking door-to-door salesman. The purchase was an expression of love. These books were to launch my brother, my sister, and me on a course of learning and success. She signed up for the installment plan. Paid each month for years.
For an eight-year-old kid, the books were a blessing, particularly Funk & Wagnalls, dark red with embossed gold lettering and pages with gilded fore-edges. Each volume two inches thick, with sturdy binding. Well-constructed all around books.
Funk & Wagnalls were extremely practical. I used them every day as impervious walls for action figure battle stations, or as mountains G.I. Joe and Star Wars figures repelled. And when used as enemy forts, they’d crash down on Destro and Cobra Commander after missiles landed. The books withstood massive battles as Quick Kick, Chewbacca, Snake Eyes, Han Solo, and Gung-Ho joined forces to infiltrate a unified Storm Trooper/Cobra Viper/Cobra Trooper base and unraveled diabolical schemes.
As my play became more elaborate, more complex, and more brutal, I used red Crayola markers for blood and an X-Acto knife to create scars and bullet wounds. To compliment this advance in morbid creativity, my forts needed an upgrade. I introduced wood constructions as forts. Funk & Wagnalls stacked became my workbench. I’d put pieces of wood on them with the measured side of the wood hanging off the fore-edges. Then I’d cut away, sawdust peppering my bedroom carpet. When the forts were done, and as I set in motion military sieges, I left my old friends, Funk & Wagnalls, forgotten at the corner of my bedroom like ships at the horizon set adrift and abandoned.
When I got a bit older, and teachers assigned book reports at school, I used Funk & Wagnalls to inform my writing. And I wrote badly. I could swing a bat or catch a football just fine. And I could do well at the bench press. But in my reports, I’d use large words incorrectly. My subjects often failed to agree with my verbs. And my sentences ran on and on. It wasn’t until College that I learned how to use the words from A to PL in the first volume, and the words from PL to Z in the second.
I learned the difference between my stupidity and my ignorance, and words like duniewassal, finagle, rubbish, quorum, and irremissibility. Or somnolent, scissile, bawdy, predilection, and pudendum. I learned words simply because I liked the way they sounded and how they came to be, their etymology. The volumes carried me as I sailed against ruthless currents through Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake, and Sea Wolf. They kept me afloat as I read Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Aristotle, and Darwin, and as I plowed through the works of Sartre, Camus, Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Lawrence, Woolf, and Yeats. They were my stalwart vessels as I set a course to Baldwin, Ellison, MLK, Hughes, and Malcolm X. Funk & Wagnalls helped me through arduous voyages, and we sailed to places “where the Dawn forever young has home and dancing-rings and the Sun his risings.”
After college, I parted with them, like the boy who parted with his giving tree in Silverstein’s book, and moved out with my girlfriend. Said goodbye to them. And I left them at my mother and Grandparent’s house, on the living room bookshelf collecting dust, their pages rarely seeing light again.
But just a few months ago, married with an eight-year-old son, a six-year-old daughter, a dog, and a cat, and a roof of my own, my mother returned Funk & Wagnells to me, still dark red, but timeworn and weathered. I welcomed them like two old memories, sat next to them with a glass of wine and flipped through their pages, reflecting on our shared history. The edges were in disrepair, the paper aged, and the covers dusty and cracked. I still want my kids to use them as I did, I thought. To discover them. But Funk & Wagnells were obsolete. Relics. Things were different.
Funk & Wagnells now sit at the top of my bookshelf like ships in a bottle, preserved. And soon, I will set out to sea again with them for one last trip, take them out through uncharted waters, to rediscover the written world. But unlike Odysseus's ship, these books will outlast me. Each flawed edge, slightly torn page, and area of faded gilding will tell my story.