Webster 1

There are a lot of things in life that I never stop and wonder where they came from. Occasionally though, I will get curious about a product or a person or even a word. Those moments of curiosity are when it is lovely to discover that someone else already did some research for me and has prepared a presentation of that piece of history in a delightful package called a picture book. For example, on the Fourth of July, I posted a Cooney illustrated edition of “the blue-backed speller” which was created in the late 1700s by Noah Webster. I am very familiar with Webster’s Dictionary, especially when it comes to quick searches for words online. But I’ve really never stopped to ponder who that “Webster” was until that post. Thankfully, someone handed me a great new book that covered a lot of the questions I should have had about a certain Mr. Noah Webster. Allow me to share some newfound knowledge with you today found in this book. Here is Noah Webster’s Words by Jeri Chase Ferris, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch, 2012.

The author is actually the person who notified me of her book and wondered if I had seen it because of that aforementioned post. When she offered to get me a copy via her publisher, I was delighted. (Shouldn’t surprise any reader that I’m always up for free books with no strings attached!) I am however always a little leery of a person knowing that I’m checking out their book since there is the chance that I won’t like it or have some criticisms that I’ll then hesitate to share. Thankfully, this book came through on the good side.

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I do however always give a disclaimer about the length of a book, and this one needs that. It’s no surprise really, given it is about a man who was known for his words, that this book would be full of them too. But I don’t see that as a negative here, just something to keep in mind and have a good attention span ahead of you.

The outcome of this book is pretty well known, considering just about everyone in the States has encountered Webster’s famous works in the dictionary and the little speller. I doubt many know of his life surrounding those creations and that is where this book resides.

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Webster was born into a long line of farmers, but quickly discovered that he did not want to carry on that legacy. He wanted to teach. Passionate about knowledge, words, and America — he shortly discovered the lack of American books to teach children. He set out to write “the second Declaration of Independence: an American spelling book.”

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The book continues to lead us through Webster’s life as he grapples to make money off of his endeavors, begins and raises a family, remains passionate about American words and phrases, lectures around the existing country, and writes and writes and writes.

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There are two things that I greatly appreciate about this book. One is the lack of climax. So often we are cultured to look for and expect the exciting life, dangerous adventure, major accomplishment and more. I’m not saying that publishing multiple works that helped shaped our entire country are not remarkable; but the lovely thing about the presentation of his life here is that he was a regular guy doing a ton of work. He needed to sleep just like everyone else. He had years of work and only saw some of the fruit of his labor while he was alive and in old age. I think it is very important to present the average hard-worker story just as much as those heroic and once-in-a-lifetime ones. It is excellent to teach about dreaming big; but we often leave out the part that most often your dream takes a lot of work, time, and dedication.

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The second thing that I appreciate about this book is the timeline in the back. With a story that spans Webster’s lifetime, it would be easy to get lost amidst trying to remember what is happening in the world compared to where Webster is on his journeys. Once I realized that was there, I found myself better able to sit back and enjoy the biography and then I could compare events afterward.

Another thing that I sincerely love about this book is the inclusion of dictionary words and definitions. Not only does it help readers who may not know the word used, but it also completely fits with the purpose and tone of the book. Look for them throughout including end pages, cover, author bios and the text. Brilliant!

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Jeri Chase Ferris is a woman passionate about history. She not only writes unique and interesting stories about historical figures, but she has also met a lot of fascinating family members to the famous (or infamous) people she documents. I’m so thankful that she put herself on my radar. As I continue to fight off my lack of enthusiasm for historical books, I love hearing such unique stories as she is finding.

Illustrator Vincent X. Kirsch is a somewhat new name to me; but I have quickly become a fan with his loose, ink, watercolor, & graphite (& love!) illustrations for this Webster work. His characterizations are so interesting and I’m grateful for his fun and quirky style for a time period that I often find to be very boring when visualized. (Sorry Revolution-era lovers, I’m not one of you.) I would find it fascinating to have a discussion with Mr. Kirsch about how he decided what to illustrate for all the text of the book. There really is so much information that I found myself going back through and studying what he chose to portray.

The very last thing I will say about this book is how much I love the typography! The cover alone made this ex-designer heart skip. The colophon doesn’t actually list the book designer so I am unsure if it was another person or if Mr. Kirsch worked some magic on it. Placing the text in interesting yet readable ways must have been a work in and of itself!

I sincerely recommend checking out this book for history and non-history buffs alike. The American version of English owes a lot to Mr. Webster and his precious words and it is something that we all take for granted. Now I am off to check and see if “zygomatic” is still the last word in Webster’s dictionary. Did everyone else know that?