Bibliophile and his words, Part 3

(Dr. Rocke Robertson collected more than 600 dictionaries and many other books; a true dictionary bibliophile)

Some Dictionaries Were Preferred over Others

Dr. Robertson said Random House put out a good dictionary because it gave much more information than just words. Nine times out of ten he used the Longman Modern English Dictionary, which he considered first-rate.

While he specialized in English language dictionaries, many of his older volumes were in other languages because of their influence on English. A prized possession was a half page from the first dictionary ever printed: the Catholicon, by Balbus, which was printed in Latin and the paper is thicker than two or three pages found in today's books. It was published in 1460 in Mainz, Germany, the same town where Gutenberg had his press.

There is some argument over the origin of the volume, but Dr. Robertson believed that it was printed by Gutenberg.

Regarding English, Dr. Robertson had a refreshingly optimistic view of the state of the English language. Studies may conclude that illiterates graduate from high school, but he said there had been little decline or change in the language in the past few decades.

Dr. Robertson stated, "If you could take ten people from the 18th century, ten from the early 19th, ten from the late 19th, and so on, you'd find they're about the same in verbal ability . . . People always say young people can't read or write."

He doesn't think it's fair to compare people today with those of a century ago, because then only the intelligentsia were literate. According to Dr. Robertson, "Today, almost 100 percent of our adult population can read, so on a head-to-head basis, the 19th century readers would fare better."

Another common belief which he attacked was that books are printed worse today than they were in centuries past and they will disintegrate in a few years.

Dr. Robertson indicated that he had many books that were fifty years old and which are still doing fine. The worst period, he believed, was in the 1850s and 1860s when the acid process to produce paper was first developed. The acid in the paper literally eats the pages up and most books from that period are now in very poor shape.

He also laughed at any suggestion that his hobby must be extremely expensive. He pointed out that there was not much demand for old dictionaries, although such books were very hard to replace.

"It hasn't been as expensive as gold over the years," he said, driving home the point that he would rather putter around in his study than on the golf course.

—Compiled from excerpts of a newspaper article titled,
"Hallville (Canada) bibliophile has a way with words" by Tom Workman, Press Staff Reporter of
The Winchester Press; Winchester, Ontario, Canada; April 9, 1981; page B-7.

Part 4 of 4 is available from here.