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'Dictionary Stories' Fictionalizes Dictionary Example Sentences

May 13, 2018
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LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

Unless you're a kid in a spelling bee or a high school or cramming for the SATs, it might have been a while since you've paid much attention to those example sentences in the dictionary, you know, those simple, can-I-hear-it-in-a-sentence sentences like this one included as part of the definition of the word study. A study of a man devoured by awareness of his own mediocrity. Wait? What? Who is the man? What caused him to feel his own mediocrity so deeply to feel devoured by it? Well, now we get to find out. In his new book "Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions And Other Findings," author Jez Burrows expands those example sentences into 100 little works of literature. Jez Burrows joins me from KQED in San Francisco to share a few dictionary stories. Thanks for joining us.

JEZ BURROWS: Thanks so much for having me.

SINGH: We mentioned the word study which launched you onto this project. Is there another word that had a surprisingly imagination-provoking example that you can share with us?

BURROWS: Oh, there were lots, as you might imagine. I think one of my favorites came from the Macquarie Dictionary, which is actually a Australian. And the sentence was for the word admonish. And the sentence read, do not admonish little Stanislaus if he tears the heart out of a backyard sparrow - which is kind of a wild sentence to be in any book but particularly to be in the dictionary.

SINGH: And it feels a little intimidating.

BURROWS: It does.

SINGH: So give me another example.

BURROWS: I looked up the word gallon as a unit of measurement, and the example was gallons of fake blood, which is not my first liquid that I would go to if I was talking about a quantity of liquids. I don't know, that just seems more worrying.

SINGH: Gallon of water, gallon of milk.

BURROWS: Even - somehow even real blood is less creepy than fake blood. I don't know what it is about the fakeness that really set it off for me but...

SINGH: I'm just thinking about the person who actually comes up with the sentence, you know?

BURROWS: Yes.

SINGH: So let's turn to page 93. It's titled "A Very Good Boy." Why don't you go ahead and read it for me?

BURROWS: OK. Absolutely. (Reading) Does your dog do any tricks? He published his autobiography last autumn. Laura's (ph) brow wrinkled. I beg your pardon? He wrote a book on the history of Russian ballet, and he has a novel in the works too, a spy novel set in Berlin. He needed something to both challenge his skills and to regain his crown as king of the thriller. She looked down at the chocolate-colored labrador and gave David (ph) a look of complete incomprehension. He's the strong silent type. The dog licked its paw. Down, boy, down.

SINGH: All right. So I'm looking at this and reading this and I'm thinking, what the? (Laughter).

BURROWS: That is a fair comment.

(LAUGHTER)

SINGH: I mean, when you read the story, when you see what you have actually created, what's the first thing that goes through your mind?

BURROWS: I couldn't point you to the specific point where I thought, oh, yeah, this is a story about a dog who was a novelist. I think that is just - it's just something that happened quite organically because I found sentences that happened to be in the right order, and the total absurdity appealed to my particular sense of humor.

SINGH: But why did you decide to create these stories using, you know, this mix, this mishmash of only pre-existing example sentences? Why not use one example sentence as a prompt, for example, and then just make up the rest?

BURROWS: Yeah. I mean, that would have saved me a lot of time. I think I'm drawn by ideas that seem distinctly unlikely or foolhardy is probably the better word to use in this instance.

SINGH: So, Jez, what did you actually end up doing with that gallon of fake blood?

BURROWS: That one actually ended up in a story that's just called "Recipe."

SINGH: Wait. Wait. Wait. Gallons of blood and recipe having to do with food?

BURROWS: Yes. It begins as a fairly normal recipe. And as with a lot of stories in the book, it becomes increasingly unhinged.

SINGH: OK, Jez. All right. Well, thank you so much for your time. Jez Burrows. His book, "Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions And Other Findings," is out now. Thanks again for joining us, Jez.

BURROWS: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.