Christopher P. Stephens, Bookman

Chris Stephens has been a book dealer since 1965 - earlier if you count childhood buying and selling.

Stephens has sold major collections to university libraries all over the world. He has operated appealing bookstores in Mt. Carroll, Illinois, Hastings on Hudson, NY and several in NYC, NY. He is a wholesale dealer to other bookstores all over the world.

Chris loves books.

Stephens now maintains a lively internet operation out of his new home in Scranton, PA.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Archie Goodwin, an appealing fictional character created by Rex Stout, spends a good part of one morning trying to work around his boss’s dictionary-burning project. The dictionary is Webster’s Unabridged International Dictionary – 3rd edition. The boss sits before a fire. The heavy (but getting lighter) dictionary is on his lap.
With grim satisfaction Nero Wolfe systematically tears fistfuls of dictionary from the binding and tosses them into the fire. Wolfe hates the book for a million reasons. The one he mentions to their client is the sloppiness of allowing that “infer” and “imply” can be used interchangeably.
Fictional Nero Wollfe had plenty of real-life compatriots. The 3rd edition came out in 1961. It was scornfully received. Newspaper editorials predicted the end of nuanced thinking. Scholars held tight to their old dictionaries. They tossed those 3rd edition replacements into the fire. Figuratively at least. An appellate court dismissed a definition from the 3rd, used in a case, in favor of a different definition found in the “classic” 2nd edition.
What made these dictionary-users go berserk ?
The 3rd edition added many new words. But so did every one of the many new editions since Webster’s first in 1809. Pictures and historical chronologies and addenda of various kinds were eliminated. But all the information eliminated was available elsewhere, perhaps more appropriately than in a dictionary.
The 3rd edition tossed out archaic usages and spellings. This gets closer to the cause for outrage. The real crime was this: The editors made a philosophical departure. They moved away from the idea of a dictionary as a compendium of words for word-lovers. For word-lovers the tiniest distinctions in meaning are thrilling and enhance thought.
The editors published, instead, a book for the common guy who heaves out words willy-nilly in the careless confidence that they will be more or less understood as they were more or less intended. Editors of the 3rd embraced the “living language”. They abdicated linguistic authority.
The dictionary annoyed Wolfe by conflating infer and imply. It annoyed others with this and many similar instances of dictionary-shabbiness, and by condoning casual slang like ain’t, and by refusing to hold up a standard.
Chris Stephens goes nuts at the common misuse of momentarily and of comprise. Even I cringe at the common misuse of decimate. The 3rd accepts misuse as an alternative definition.
My favorite piece about words is an essay written by Anne Fadiman. It first appeared in her Common Reader column for the Library of Congress publication, Civilization. I read it in her absolutely perfect collection of essays, Ex Libris.
In that essay Fadiman writes of the tickled delight that word-lovers feel at finding a word they don’t know. Another word, another treat.
Luckily for me, the Webster’s Unabridged International Dictionary – 2nd edition – is on the dictionary stand in my living room. It was purchased in 1965 by book dealer Frank Scioscia, from book dealer Peter Howard, as a wedding present for book dealer Christopher Stephens.

scroll down to bit about Fadiman
Librarything on Ex Libris
a word post on Macro Micro and Vice Versa
Amazon customer reviews for Gambit by Rex Stout

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