Own the Tools

When I need to look up a word, most of the time I do it in a paper dictionary.

I’m pretty quick at flipping to the right place, and I try to get quicker each time. However, it will never be as quick as typing the word into Google.

My switch back to paper wasn’t motivated by cantankerousness. It wasn’t a romantic thing or a hipster thing, or an “I love the smell of books” thing. I just found that after years of relying on online dictionaries, a real one offers a better experience in every way except the speed.

The whole experience is cleaner and more purposeful. A paper dictionary contains complete answers for almost any conceivable “What does this word mean” problem — and nothing else. No matter which word has you puzzled, the real dictionary has inside it a small patch of print that will perfectly solve your issue. It exists only to deliver this solution, and has no ulterior motives.

While using this tool, you will not accidentally start responding to political hot takes, or adjusting your fantasy football lineup. The paper dictionary, like a decent pen or an oven mitt, was designed to deliver only what you need in the moment you access it – knowledge of what “obtuse” or “dysphoria” mean — so that you can carry on with your work.

Its services align with your needs because you paid for it and now own it. Thus its role in your life remains clean and uncomplicated — the opposite of any tool you access through a web browser. You paid for it in the simple, transparent way we used to pay for everything: as singular purchases of single-purpose tools that aren’t trying to take anything more from you.

A Dictionary.com page is happy to provide a free definition, but it will also suggest, with half its surface area, that you consider financing a Nissan Murano this holiday season. It secretly hopes that when you open it you don’t only learn what “veritable” means, as you intended, but that you also sign up for a free trial of Adobe Creative Cloud. Its aims do not align with your own. Its loyalty, if it has any, is not to you, because unlike the stout paper dictionary on your shelf, you are not its owner.

I’ve rejected this maladaptive arrangement in favor of a real dictionary, which is better in every way except that it takes fifteen seconds to find the word instead of three.

My only regret is not realizing sooner how much I value qualities other than speed in my dictionarying – cleanliness, transparency, loyalty to my best interests, not to mention the refreshing physicality of the whole thing. I didn’t realize how much I’d given up by using the web instead, and how little was gained.

This little insight suggests a principle that we 21st-century wanderers might want to write down: whenever you can, own the tools, or you never stop paying for them.

Tool ownership is a great way to use gift cards you receive during the holidays. Instead of blowing it on something ephemeral, get a good, solid tool that will serve you for life and ask nothing in return.