A Walking Dictionary

9780544129832_hresNoah Webster: Man of Many Words
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion, 2015, New York, $18.99)

Although most Americans associate Noah Webster with dictionaries, writing a dictionary was not his sole contribution to American life and letters. He wrote about American history, politics, science, history, religion, and spelling, penning encyclopedia, a version of the Bible, a spelling text, and countless essays during his lifetime. He also successfully campaigned for the first copyright laws passed in the United States. Through it all, Webster sought to celebrate and encourage the existence of a uniquely American, always evolving form of English, one he hoped would unite the people of the fledgling republic.

In Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, Catherine Reef paints a lively, nuanced portrait of the vigorous and quirky visionary. Although Reef’s young adult biography is sympathetic, she occasionally lends her dry wit to her subject. For example, she describes how a young Webster addressed audiences about “such riveting subjects as long and short vowels.” Readers encounter Webster as opinionated iconoclast, tireless author, and devoted husband and father. Reef also includes contextual information about politics, education, and language in his era. In addition to helping readers understand his life and work, this material also makes the book a compelling introduction to eighteenth and early nineteenth-century American life.

Noah Webster may have spent years of his life brooding over pronunciation and spelling, but he is far from a dry biographical subject. After reading Reef’s excellent new biography, both young adult and older readers will have a new appreciation for the man behind the dictionary and the dynamic nature of language.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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