Dictionary With No Definitions

Via boston.com

IT HAS THE name Webster’s on the cover, and the impressive binding of a traditional dictionary, but there aren’t any definitions inside – only pages and pages of illustrations, detailed black-and-white engravings of birds, plants, architectural elements, parts of the body, geometric figures, heraldic devices. The book costs $2,600, and that’s the least-expensive edition. It took the artist nearly a dozen years to create. And – perhaps most strangely for a dictionary whose entries are images – it has become an overwhelming object of desire for lexicographers.

The Pictorial Webster’s may be the most curious of the many volumes that have borne the name Webster’s over the years. It’s the creation of Johnny Carrera, an artist, letterpress printer, and bookbinder who lives in Waltham. Inspired by the beauty of the illustrations in early dictionaries, he painstakingly reprinted more than 400 pages of engravings from the 1859 edition of Merriam-Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, the first illustrated dictionary published in America.

Carrera found the original engravings – more than 12,000 – at the Sterling Library at Yale, and then spent 12-hour days organizing and cleaning them. He set and printed them by hand, 16 pages at a time, on a letterpress. The book’s pages are hand-sewn; the indented thumb tabs on the page edges are cut by hand as well. The label on the spine is printed with gold leaf. Carrera’s process, laborious and painstaking, gives you the feeling it could have been just as well accomplished by candlelight.

Carrera calls his book a “visual Finnegans Wake of 19th-century America.” By arranging the illustrations in alphabetical order, without their distracting definitions, he said he wanted to force readers to make involuntary connections between the images, to create a kind of sense out of nonsense.
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