Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia.

The title of this post is a quotation from The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

The entire book is incredibly compelling. But this phrase, and the section it comes from, struck me on reading it and lodged itself in my memory as an idea worth thinking about further.

This is from a part where Malcolm talks about his self-education in prison, and how he spent hundreds of days reading and meticulously hand-copying the dictionary. He describes how it not only enhanced his vocabulary but also taught him a lot about the world through its inclusion of information on people, places, historical events and more. That’s where this line comes in — his realization that, yes, a dictionary is actually an encyclopedia in miniature.

“I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying. […]

“I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. […]

“I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet — and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.”

The moment is the opening of a world of knowledge, the slow-burn burgeoning of reading and learning as urgent life priorities. The dictionary is a lens bringing into focus a new relationship with these processes:

“I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors — usually Ella and Reginald — and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.”

I should maybe stop there; I am now about to trample over this elegant passage with analysis. But…a perfect storm swells, of topics that tug my interests: learning, information, systems, knowledge…a collision you might expect to find discussed at great length by Umberto Eco. Too late! The writing is already done!

This idea struck me because it encapsulates something really interesting about the structure of information and knowledge. It makes clear how there can be layers of hierarchy in meaning and organization, how it’s possible to find within one structural shell another, deeper layer, another way of perceiving or interpreting  information.

The conceptual framing of “dictionary as encyclopedia” is interesting  partly because of how each of these structures — dictionary and encyclopedia — are both familiar to us as some kind of Platonic form, and have variously manifested and evolved through the years.

The specific conceptions surely vary a great deal from person to person and culture to culture. Personally, my image of a dictionary is as a contained, if evolving, reference compendium, designed to both document usage and serve up definitive meanings for as many words as may be captured in a given language. I see an encyclopedia as a collection — aspiring to be comprehensive, yet inevitably less contained — outlining factual knowledge, the basic informational shape of everything that can be imagined, though largely lacking insight and analysis and extrapolation.

But these are merely the archetypes; both dictionary and encyclopedia have changed enormously, even over just the past decade. They’ve metastasized to a phenomenal degree, exploding in definition and form, fragmented themselves into infinite subdivisions and niches. Witness the proliferation not only of entities like Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary, Genius, Wolfram Alpha — but also, say, topical wikis for fictional universes.

It’s no longer possible to conceive of there being one definitive dictionary and one definitive encyclopedia. I mean, really there never was, but at one point you could at least squint and put on blinders and pretend like the factual world was more or less captured by the OED and Britannica. Now…now we’re irreversibly tangled in some strange quantum environment where the scaffoldings of information and knowledge are legion.

And many of these structures have multiple forms and interpretations, forming a much more confusing tangle, perhaps, than the dictionary-as-encyclopedia relationship articulated by Malcolm X.

Situationally, Instagram can be a reference resource. Facebook and Twitter serve as the news. Google Maps is the most vivid and comprehensive atlas the world has ever seen. Your favorite forum is a guidebook to a self-contained world. SciHub is an open library and Jstor is an archaic lockbox for knowledge. We have massive data sets being open sourced by major governments, crowd wisdom being harnessed like never before, and vast infrastructures of knowledge being made available in all manner of weird and wonderful ways.

My new favorite platform for knowledge organization and storage is Arena — neither centrally-managed nor entirely crowdsourced, but a blend of personal and collaborative, a place for weaving webs between the corners of your own mind, and those of others. I haven’t used the platform a whole lot to create my own idea-networks, but I’ve browsed it extensively, and see it used as both dictionary and encyclopedia — and also as scrapbook, to do list, even as library.

(I will almost certainly use Arena a lot more, and probably write about it more, in the not-too-distant future.)

With the relationships of all these networks and platforms shifting so rapidly before our eyes, it’s no wonder that we connect things in unexpected ways, actively creating (and at times stumbling into) new ways of learning and knowing. Sometimes this is accidental, emergent behavior of a chaotic landscape. But sometimes we know exactly what we’re doing when we use a service or platform in a way orthogonal to its original intent. And, often enough, that’s what keeps us moving forward.