2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
Just the Right Word

If I were asked to name a private collection assembled on a modest budget that has the potential to become an important resource at a major research institution, I would cite as my prime example Breon Mitchell’s 2,000 dictionaries of exotic languages.

The idea that Mitchell—an educator, translator, and since 2001, director of the Lilly Library at Indiana University—is a bibliophile of the first magnitude ought not to surprise anyone. He is custodian of one of the great rare books and manuscripts collections to be found in North America. But in the case of his dictionaries, gathered over the last decade, his passion transcends professional responsibility and is decidedly personal—a combining, as it were, of intellectual rigor with human nature.

“I’ve been collecting since I was fourteen years old,” Mitchell told me last year in the first of two conversations we have had for use in my new book, Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World, forthcoming this December from HarperCollins. We were talking in those interviews primarily about his work as a mediator of literary texts. Of particular interest to me his rendering of Franz Kafka’s The Trial into English from German and his belief that new translations of timeless works amount essentially to new works of art. But his activity as a determined book hunter kept entering the discourse, as it inevitably does in discussions like this.

Mitchell told me how, in 1965, while studying at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, he had come to buy a book of uncommon antiquarian interest. In that instance, a prior owner of a German-language edition of Thomas Carlyle’s life of Frederick the Great was chillingly established by a bookplate affixed to the front pastedown featuring a swastika, an eagle in profile, and the engraved name of Adolf Hitler.

What made this a really good collecting story was the fact that the leather-bound history had been gathering dust on a shelf for years in the London shop of Maggs Bros., on Berkeley Square. Snapping it up for £5, Mitchell later determined from a reading of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler (1947) that this was a well-worn copy of Hitler’s favorite book. Joseph Goebbels also had a copy of this book, and he read aloud from it to his doomed führer as Berlin was about to fall to the Allies, making the Mitchell find an association item of no small consequence.

That, of course, was a story of serendipity, one of those you-gotta-be-kidding-me eureka moments that every collector dreams about having. The activity I found most interesting to discuss, however, was Mitchell’s systematic assembly of obscure dictionaries. His interest in lexicons grew out of his interest in linguistics and translation and his work as a professor of Germanic studies and comparative literature at Indiana, a position he still holds in addition to his duties at the Lilly.

“I started out to collect one dictionary for every language in the world, but then it became much more interesting to get the first dictionaries published,” he explained of his purpose. “Then I decided to limit myself to non-European languages and living languages. A further limitation was that I wasn’t going to collect any of the major languages of the world either, regardless of geography, and I would be the one to decide which are the major languages, based on the number of people who are speaking them.”

What Mitchell was doing, obviously, was what every deliberate collector must do, which is to establish a focus and define the parameters. By excluding all major languages, moreover, he could do something that just might have relevance down the road as a collection that would complement, not replicate, the holdings of an institution such as the Lilly, which, as it turns out, will receive the books as a gift from Mitchell. “A collection like this needs to be in an institution,” he said, pointing out that a number of the dictionaries he has acquired do not appear to be represented in any other research library.

“There are some other collections of dictionaries, but they generally focus on a particular language or two. I know of no institution that is specifically building a dictionary collection at all like this one, so there is a definite utility to it.”

Mitchell said that there are more than 6,000 active languages in the world, most of which have no dictionary at all. “The number of languages for which a dictionary exists is probably around 1,000, though it could be as many as 1,500.” The last relevant compilation—indeed, the only other one—was done in 1958 by Wolfram Zaunmüller, a German scholar, whose Bibliographisches Handbuch der Sprachwörterbücher is woefully out of date.

“I am making a database of my own collection, and one of the things I want to do is put together a bibliography continuing Zaunmüller to the present,” Mitchell said. Most of Mitchell’s dictionaries are bilingual and represent languages spoken on all inhabited continents, with English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, or Russian typically being the second language. The vast majority of these, he said, have traditionally been prepared over the years by three distinct groups: missionaries, explorers, and the military. With the rise of linguistics as an academic field, professional linguists are now producing most of the new dictionaries, he added.

“I was interested at first in what we might call the exotic languages or rare languages spoken by very few people. But some of these languages we might think of as rare are in fact spoken by millions,” he said, citing the languages of the Indian subcontinent, of native or indigenous populations of the Western hemisphere, and of African regions as examples. “There are more than 800 different languages in Papua New Guinea alone, which is the only country in the world, by the way, in which pidgin English is an official language.”Thus, Mitchell admits another category to his shelves: pidgin and Creole languages.

“Who are you, and why are you suddenly buying books that nobody else in the world seems interested in?”

 In New Guinea, pidgin English is known as Tok Pisan, and a dictionary Mitchell has of the dialect was prepared in 1943 for use during the war with Japan. It includes lists of phrases along with admonishments to servicemen not to be “the first to walk across a stream near the coast”—a warning to be wary of crocodiles—followed by the suggestion to “always have a native cross first.”

Pasigraphy—a system that “teaches people to communicate with one another in writing by means of numbers, which convey the same ideas in all languages”—is represented by an 1871 book. “Under this system, you would say ‘I love you’ with the numbers 1605, 1895, and 709,” Mitchell said, not needing to add that this unorthodox proposal for a universal language fell by the wayside.

Another example of an artificial language is Bolak, or the “blue language.” According to Mitchell, the French preface to the only Bolak dictionary describes the language as a “new international idiom” that takes “only a few minutes to learn” and that is accessible “to any person of moderate intelligence,” so long as that person is prepared to apply one rule: “facility.”

Mitchell’s copy of an 1861 Zulu–English dictionary of 10,000 entries contains numerous annotations and corrections inserted by the book’s former owner, A. N. Montgomery, an author of books related to South African history. Mitchell’s copy of the 1878 revised edition of the dictionary is annotated and signed by the black African printer.

“I also collect gypsy languages and Inuit languages,” Mitchell said. “I have a very early Eskimo dictionary—a Latin–Greenlandic–Eskimo dictionary, printed in 1804 in Copenhagen.” He has Australian aboriginal dictionaries and a dictionary of Tokelauan, the language used by native peoples in New Zealand, American Samoa, and other Pacific islands. Another dictionary, of Rapa Nui, is the “first two-way dictionary of the language of Easter Island.” Yet another: a copy of the “first and only dictionary” of Nyoro, a Bantu language spoken by more than 500,000 people living east of Lake Albert in Uganda.

Mitchell estimates his holdings of Native American dictionaries at more than 125 languages, including one, of the Otchipwe language, acquired at Sotheby’s in the Frank T. Seibert sale in 1999 for $4,312.50, the most he has spent for any book in the collection. “With the help of the Internet, I was able to collect broadly around the world and assemble a really fine collection within about two years for very little money,” he said. He also noted that he has used all other conventional methods as well, including the development of good relationships with booksellers and the prowling of junk shops and antique stores.

In one instance, a dealer in South Africa asked a straightforward enough question: “Who are you, and why are you suddenly buying books that nobody else in the world seems interested in?” When you think about it, the simple answer to both queries pretty much summarizes the true spirit of book collecting at its most satisfying level.

Nicholas A. Basbanes was an award-winning investigative reporter before he began writing about books. His first book, A Gentle Madness, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His other books are Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.