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The Big Book

A trip to the BU library, and to linguistic Spain.

We were in the Boston University library, returning some books. We went to find a specific newspaper article in the Boston Globe of the 26th of December, but we couldn't find it, even though we both looked through every page of the paper. So we decided to leave.

“Look,” she said, as she walked past the shelves for the very large books. Almost all of them were atlases. She pulled one out at random, pleased by its size, and opened it.

“What is it?”

“I don't know,” she said. She flipped a few pages. “It's just a map of Spain, the same one on every page, with variations on the same word over and over.”

I looked at it, confused. “That's the IPA. It's a linguistic atlas.” I had heard of linguistic atlases but never seen one.

Page from a linguistic atlas of Spain (detail).

“They're showing how the word changes from region to region,” she said. We looked at it, both excited by the novelty, that something as small as a single word could fill up a map of a country. She kept turning pages. Words spread across Spain. Some made small changes in a few miles, but the changes accrued as you traveled, vowels broadened and contracted, consonants were abbreviated, words gathering linguistic compound interest in their travels.

“Imagine the work that went into this,” I said. “I wonder if it was one very diligent linguist, or dozens all writing in with their results.”

She put the book away, and we decided to leave. But as we walked past the edge of the shelves for the atlases, I spotted the biggest book of all, leaning against an unused fluorescent fixture, and excited, pulled it out.

“What's in there?” she asked.

“It's probably the biggest book in the library,” I said. We decided it was better not to look inside, but to imagine what the book contained. The book of Genesis in 200 pt type? A lost symphony for a 600-piece orchestra? A version of Beatrix Potter's tale of Jeremy Fisher, written for genetically manipulated monster children with 9-ft-radius eyes? A collection of fossilized mastodon footprints? “I wonder if the library catalog has a little flag on the record, a 'BBBB' with an exclamation point, so that if someone comes in and says, what's the largest book here....”

“I wonder if we could check it out?”

“I think it's reference,” I said.

I asked her to open it and turn the pages, which, unlike most reading, was a very athletic activity, requiring hands and legs together, and made a great crackling noise in the quiet library.

Looping animated GIF made up of photos of a person turning the pages of a very large book.

“Did you peek?” I said.

“I squinted.” She frowned. “Of course I didn't peek.”


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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