By Lydia Davis, in the Fall 1999 issue of Bomb. “The Old Dictionary” appears in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, published in 2010 by Picador.
I have an old dictionary, about 120 years old, that I need to use for a particular piece of work I’m doing this year. Its pages are brownish in the margins and brittle, and very large. I risk tearing them when I turn them. When I open the dictionary I also risk tearing the spine, which is already split more than halfway up. I have to decide, each time I think of consulting it, whether it is worth damaging the book further in order to look up a particular wotd. Since I need to use it for this work, I know I will damage it, if not today then tomorrow, and that by the time I am done with this work it will be in poorer condition than it was when I started, if not completely ruined. When I took it off the shelf today, though, I realized that I treat it with a good deal more care than I treat my young son. Each time I handle it I take the greatest care not to harm it: my primary concern is not to harm it. What struck me today was that even though my son should be more important to me than my old dictionary, I can’t say that each time I deal with my son my primary concern is not to harm him. My primary concern is almost always something else; for instance, to find out what his homework is, or to get supper on the table, or to finish a phone conversation. If he gets harmed in the process, that doesn’t seem to matter to me as much as getting the thing done, whatever it is. Why don’t I treat my son at least as well as the old dictionary? Maybe it is because the dictionary is so obviously fragile. When a corner of a page snaps off, it is unmistakable. My son does not look fragile, slouching over a game or manhandling the dog. Certainly his body is strong and flexible, and it is not easily harmed by me. I have bruised his body and then it has healed. Sometimes it is obvious to me when I have hurt his feelings, but is harder to see how badly they have been hurt, and they seem to mend. It is hard to see if they mend completely or are forever slightly damaged. When the dictionary is hurt, it can’t be mended. Maybe I treat the dictionary better because it makes no demands on me and doesn’t fight back. Maybe I am kinder to things that don’t seem to react to me. But in fact my houseplants do not seem to react much and yet I don’t treat them very well. The plants make one or two demands. Their demand for light has already been satisfied by where I put them. Their second demand is for water. I water them but not regularly. Some of them don’t grow very well because of that, and some of them die. Most of them are strange-looking rather than nice-looking. Some of them were nice-looking when I bought them but are strange-looking now because I haven’t taken very good care of them. Most of them are in pots that are the same ugly plastic pots they came in. I don’t actually like them very much. Is there any other reason to like a houseplant, if it is not nice-looking? Am I kinder to something that is nice-looking? But I could treat a plant well even if I didn’t like its looks. I should be able to treat my son well when he is not looking good and even when he is not acting very nice. I treat the dog better than the plants, even though he is more active and more demanding. It is simple to give him food and water. I take him for walks, though not often enough. I have also sometimes slapped his nose, though the vet told me never to hit him anywhere near the head, or maybe he said anywhere at all. I am only sure I am not neglecting the dog when he is asleep. Maybe I am kinder to things that are not alive. Or rather if they are not alive there is no question of kindness. It does not hurt them if I don’t pay attention to them, and that is a great relief. It is such a relief it is even a pleasure. The only change they show is that they gather dust. The dust won’t really hurt them. I can even get someone else to dust them. My son gets dirty, and I can’t clean him, and I can’t pay someone to clean him. It is hard to keep him clean and even complicated trying to feed him. He doesn’t sleep enough, partly because I try so hard to get him to sleep. The plants need two things, or maybe three. The dog needs five or six things. It is very clear how many things I am giving him and how many I am not, and therefore how well I’m taking care of him. My son needs many other things besides what he needs for his physical care, and these things multiply or change constantly. They can change right in the middle of a sentence. Although I often know, I do not always know just what he needs. Even when I know, I am not always able to give it to him. Many times each day I do not give him what he needs. Some of what I do for the old dictionary, though not all, I could do for my son. For instance, I handle it slowly, deliberately, and gently. I leave it alone a good deal of the time. I consider its age. I treat it with respect. I know its limitations. I do not encourage it to go further than it can go (for instance, to lie open flat on the table). I stop and think before I use it.