At the risk of looking like a complete nerd: I like to read dictionaries. Just open to a page at random and learn something new and unexpected.
Older dictionaries are the best. Some of those gigantic old tomes contain definitions that are well-crafted gems of writing. For instance, this definition of the word “noble” from Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language: “Great; elevated; dignified; being above everything that can dishonor reputation; as a noble mind; a noble courage; noble deeds of valor. ‘Statues, with winding ivy crown’d, belong to nobler poets for a nobler song.’”
“S is for Southern: A Guide to the South, from Absinthe to Zydeco,” is a new encyclopedia in that spirit. From the editors of Garden & Gun, the Charleston, S.C.-based magazine that chronicles the modern South, “S is for Southern” contains more than 500 entries.
Consider a few of the P’s: Peach Wars, Pea Crab, Peanut Butter and Mayonnaise Sandwich, Pecans, Pickling, Piggly Wiggly, Pig’s Feet, Pimento Cheese, Pirates, Poke, Pork, Potlikker, Presley (Elvis), Pride (Charley), Prudhomme (Paul).
Quite a few of the entries are short essays by famous folk.
Here’s Daniel “Big Fish” Wallace on accent: “A Northern accent is distinguishable from a Southern accent the same way a paper bag full of broken glass is distinguishable from a cashmere scarf.”
Here’s Ace Atkins, a distinguished crime writer better known in these parts as a member of Auburn’s undefeated 1993 team, on Southern college football: “What outsiders don’t know is that Southern football isn’t about dominance and winning, it’s about conversation.”
Jason Isbell (the king of Americana music) penned the entry for “Atlanta Braves,” thinking back to how baseball brought him closer to his grandparents.
Humorist Roy Blount Jr. writes on humidity. Frances “Under the Tuscan Sun” Mayes considers the magnolia. Possum Trot’s own Rick Bragg manages to sum up Harper Lee in less than two pages, in what is one of the longer entries in the book.
I opened to several pages at random, and I did indeed learn some things new and unexpected.
I learned that Avery Island is where Tabasco comes from, that Charleston has a thing called “pluff mud,” that beer cheese is not a new hipster thing but an old dish invented on the banks of the Kentucky River, and that Trigger is not just a horse, or the thing you pull on a gun, but also Willie Nelson’s guitar (“an old, battered Martin N-20 classical acoustic, nylon-stringed, with a Prismatone stereo electric pickup salvaged from a busted Baldwin guitar.”)
Even if you don’t learn something, you’ll at least chuckle:
Snakes: “According to scientists, of the South’s six million species of native snakes, seven million are venomous.”
“S is for Southern” is a funny, nostalgic compendium that, when all is said and done, reminds you why the South is still worth loving.
Waffle House: “Unlike almost any restaurant on Earth, Waffle House meets Robert Frost’s famous depiction of home as ‘the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’”