Just out of college, Billy takes a job as a lexicographer with a New England dictionary publisher and improbably finds himself caught up in a peculiar murder mystery. Working with another young recent hire, Mona, Billy slowly uncovers a series of clues left behind in the company’s “cit files” where citations of word usage are stored in anticipation of future editions. The clues come out helter-skelter and mystifying in the form of citations themselves from a book called The Broken Teaglass, all squirreled away in fastidiously alphabetical order in the files.
As the mystery unfolds in all its complexity in this refreshingly offbeat novel, Billy gradually becomes acquainted with the eccentrics who staff the company, a series of encounters I found delightful. Most enjoyable — hilarious, really — are the letters and conversations with the confused, the cranks, and the convicts who contact the company to question one definition or another. Meanwhile, Billy’s own troubled past slowly becomes clear, and he unravels in the course of coming to terms with it.
The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Publishers Weekly called this novel, Emily Arsenault’s first, a “quirky, arresting debut,” and so it is. I loved this book.
For additional reading
I’ve reviewed four other books about the English language and dictionaries:
- Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (A very funny book about words, grammar, and dictionaries)
- Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer (A top copyeditor explains how to write clear English)
- Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (A peek inside the editorial process at The New Yorker)
- The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner (The famous dictionary that threw out the rules of grammar)
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