The Devil's Dictionary

I was a library nut when I was a kid. I’d go at least once a week, sometimes more, and check out the maximum number of books they allowed. (I’m still the same way, but that’s a story for another post.) I thought there was nothing better in the world than the public library. I loved spending time in it and I loved just knowing it existed.

It took me a while to accumulate enough capital to actually buy a book of my own, rather than borrow it from the library. One of the first ones I purchased was a Dover edition of a book I first encountered on the library shelves and decided I had to have for my own: The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. The book is a collection of satirical, witty, sardonic, and just plain funny definitions of everything from Abasement to Zoology.

Who knows what drew an eleven year old to such a dismal view of the world? Could I have been as pessimistic about life as this book? Probably not. It hardly seems possible, given my more or less charmed middle class upbringing. Nevertheless, I do remember enjoying the definitions. I still own the book and still dip into it occasionally. Bierce had the sharpest wit of anyone I’ve ever encountered, in print or in real life. Also the most unrelentingly cynical grasp of human nature. His ability to find the negative in everything still warrants my admiration. Just try these definitions on for size:

EGOIST, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

FAMOUS, adj. Conspicuously miserable.

NEIGHBOR, n. One whom we are commanded to love as ourselves, and who does all he knows how to make us disobedient.

RESOLUTE, adj. Obstinate in a course that we approve.

VOTE, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.

My copy of Bierce’s singular lexicon has a $1.25 cover price, which gives you some idea of just how long I’ve had it.

What book do you still have from when you were a pre-teen?

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