I owe a lot to a grammar book, The System of English Grammar, by Ralph Long and Dorothy Long. It was a random discovery at a used book store near the University of Chicago, one of those glorious places with overstuffed aisles and creaky floors. The book itself is a solid textbook, built to last forever. I spent a year studying it, doing all the exercises, and I would like to say that book changed my life more than any other single book. But you never know, do you? Books can have subtle but nonetheless crucial effects that we never appreciate. Maybe Horton Hears a Who nudged me toward empathy and compassion at a time when I was particularly receptive to that. And then there’s simple fate, or luck, or whatever you call it. Perhaps the title really goes to some forgotten paperback that I lingered over in the door of Acres of Books while a bus thundered by that I otherwise would have absently walked in front of.
And of course there are the dictionaries. I’ve worn out several, two Merriams and an American Heritage that I recall offhand. That started in my first year at Purdue when some handsome young vagabond sat down at our table and began impressing my girlfriend with a lot of words I didn’t understand. How could I compete with that? Well, from that day forward I was an obsessive dictionary user. I learned all the words, but I never did become that guy.
But I’m happy. I work at home, facing a wall of books, mostly doing what I like, which is researching and writing and editing. I’m also fortunate in another way: I met someone who seems to think I’m that guy. I protest, but never too adamantly. We all have our grand illusions.