I managed to get my hands on something rather special today, bringing me closer to my favourite writer, Mark Twain.
I love Twain because he was quite a character. He lived an outstanding life, starting out (as I did) as a typesetter in a print shop, but ended up writing such classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. He was not only a hugely respected writer but a credible business man. In his day, presidents, artists and royalty all used to quote his words, which made him a regular on the speaking circuit, earning thousands from his speaking engagements, as he taught others how to use the power of words to communicate their messages. Most of the money he earned he invested into start ups, one of which was the Paige Compositor, a new kind of mechanical typesetter that helped create newspapers and books more efficiently.
As you can see here, it was a fine looking machine but sadly, the project failed because it was too complicated and not accurate enough. He ended up filing for bankruptcy, but rather than wipe the slate clean and start again, Twain paid off every one of his pre-bankruptcy creditors in full, even though he had no obligation to do so. He was a good egg.
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect”.
Twain died in 1910 aged 74, by which time he was recognised as one of the finest wordsmiths in the world. There are many popular tales about Twain, but my favourite is the less familiar story about how he became so good with words.
Twain was inspired by Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United states from 1847-1849 and regarded by some as the greatest of all Presidents. Lincoln was famous for sitting on his porch well into the twilight, reading his dictionary for hours on end until he could see no more. It was Lincoln’s ability to know exactly which words to use, at which time, for each occasion, that not only helped to get him elected President, but to give the Gettysberg address (widely regarded as the greatest speech of all time), and to abolish slavery by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
Recognising the power that words can have, and the influence that a person with a wide vocabularly carried, Twain insisted upon taking his dictionary with him everywhere. But this was no pocket sized book of words as we know today, this was Webster’s unabridged dictionary, containing almost half a million entries over its 2,600 pages. Having a tome like that sat on your sideboard in the living room, would have been impressive enough, but Twain travelled a lot. Living in Florida Missouri, Twain often travelled to Nevada where he spent a large part of his life. Twain’s 1,700 mile journey by stagecoach, took him along a cowboy trail beset by all kinds of danger, where he was literally taking his life in his own hands.
Speed and agility were crucial in navigating the trail and getting to the destination as quickly and drama-free as possible. It was a notoriously slow trail and having large parts of the journey where food or water was not available, supplies (for men and horses) had to be carried on board. This meant that extra weight could be the difference between safety and disaster, so baggage was charged by the ounce. The heavier the cargo, the higher the risk, the more money the drivers wanted. Despite all this, Twain insisted on carrying his dictionary with him.This was no small task. He clearly placed so much importance on this book that he was willing to go to great lengths just to make sure that he was never without it. Dale Carnegie wrote about it in his book about public speaking:
“Mark Twain carried with him a Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary over mountain passes, across scorched deserts, and through land infested with bandits and Indians. He wanted to make himself a master of words, and with his characteristic courage and common sense, he set about doing the things necessary to bring that mastery about”.
I wonder what Twain would have made of the smartphone, where we have the entire world in our pocket. Or even more, what would he have made of us; a generation who despite the fact that we have all that knowledge at our finger tips, we still mostly ignore it in favour of skimming across Facebook and Buzzfeed looking at photos of kittens and videos bulldogs on skateboards!
I finally managed to get my hands on a copy of Webster’s today, courtesy of my friendly local rare book seller, who likes to keep his eye out for books he thinks I’ll be interested in. It wasn’t until I saw the dictionary first-hand that I realised why that Mark Twain anecdote was such a big deal. I had to pick it up in my car, partly to protect it but mostly because it is SO heavy! 470,000 entries of heavy. The word media had no real meaning. The plates describing how cars worked showed the option between gas powered and steam powered. Fencing was the sport of choice. And a computer was simply a computational device to help you calculate your accounts.
So while I leave you to the rest of your Monday, let me share with you some of the pages and plates from this wonderful book. Maybe it will inspire you to find something equally as important to you, to take on whatever journey you are on…