Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pictorial Webster's: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities

At first glance it's not readily apparent what to make of what the Pictorial Webster's actually is. At one level, it is simply, as the author writes, a collection of "fascinating little images." In some part it is an artist's book (it was originally published in this manner), but it is also a powerful visual reference and source of inspiration.

The Pictorial Webster's consists of illustratory images accompanying definitions in a number of nineteenth-century editions of dictionaries published by Merriam Webster such as the 1859 American Dictionary of the English Language or the later Webster's International Dictionary of the English Language. This was an era when the photograph had been invented but was not commonly or conveniently available in printed references. The original images were engraved on blocks smaller than an inch square and are very detailed with delicate lines and have an iconic quality.

This resource provides the reader with small, clean, simple images of all manner of miscellania. The author, John M. Carrera, describes the process of bringing the images together as one of discovery, assembly, cryptography, and archeology. His aim is for the reader to experience a “personal resonance” with the images.

Although the book has a largely alphabetic arrangement, the author has tried to arrange the images so the reader will try to form their own story. The result at times is almost reminiscent of dadaist collage.

At the end of the volume, Carrera has written a history of Merriam Webster dictionaries and their illustrations, and a section about the printing process. A small number of color photographs of the actual wooden blocks used to engrave the images in the book.

Pictorial Webster's can be used as a practical visual resource or a clip-art book. It is also a look back into history, a musing into the nature of image and story-telling, and a work of art in itself.

Mr. Carrera has a personal website that describes this project in some depth.

Pictorial Webster's: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities with additional dissertation by John M. Carrera (Chronicle Books, 2009).

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