Jonathan Blum (Safety Book #39)

1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?

The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary: First Edition.

There have now been five editions of this book—each new one offering hundreds, even thousands, more playable words than the one before—but the edition I’m talking about had a stark gray hardcover (the binding of mine is torn up from use) and had this as a preface:

"This word book has been long awaited by lovers of…SCRABBLE…All who have looked for a guide to settle challenges that arise in the course of play now have one of authority. This is the dictionary of first reference for all SCRABBLE crossword game tournaments."

The first Scrabble clubs, breeding grounds for tournament players, were being formed around North America in the mid-1970s. I found out about the local Miami club from a notice in The Miami Herald; I started playing there regularly on Saturdays in 1977, when I was nine. 

In those days, I studied the OSPD all the time. During the day and at night. In bed and in the bathroom. At school and after school. From age nine to eleven, I spent part of many days trying to memorize as many words as I could, including all the acceptable two- and three-letter words; all the letters (“hooks”) that can go before and after the three-letter words to form other words; words containing J, X, Q and Z; variant spellings of words (CRAAL/KRAAL); then every anagram I came across, particularly potential bingos, which I wrote out in the margins of the dictionary: UTOPIAN/OPUNTIA, STOGIES/EGOISTS, DISCOVER/DIVORCES. I wanted to be a great player. At first, it just seemed a matter of knowing more words—a lot more words—than your opponent. And of being able to find the words in your rack. But the more I studied, the more I realized I didn’t know and the clearer it became how far I was from possibly ever becoming an excellent player.

At twelve, I became a more observant Jew and would not go anywhere on Saturdays other than to synagogue and, afterwards, to the rabbi’s house for Torah study. Some of my Scrabble-playing zeal cooled off, but it has returned periodically throughout my life.

2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?

It was at the Miami Scrabble club that met on NW 37 Avenue.

3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

As a young child, I was fascinated by people who could learn things by heart. I didn’t have an especially good memory but I was very admiring of people who did. My grandmother, for example, had memorized dozens of poems and stories that she recited to me before sleep. At synagogue there were men who knew the entire Sabbath prayerbook by heart. Sports announcers seemed to have hundreds of statistics at their disposal. Musicians knew every verse of their songs. And the best Scrabble players, including one, an attorney, who kindly gave me rides to the club and who was so good that he would soon be vying for the national championship, had word knowledge that I would probably never acquire. Still, there was joy in trying to memorize as much of a book as one could, from BEDIAPER to TRUELOVE to PISSOIR; after all, this book, perhaps as much as any other, was made to be memorized.

4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…

From the Introduction:

“In most cases, only one very brief definition is given for each main entry since definitions do not play a significant role in…SCRABBLE…”

When I was a boy trying to learn as many acceptable Scrabble words as possible, I was often asked by adults who learned of my passion why I was trying so hard to memorize words that, in many cases, I didn’t know the meaning of. (I did have to know if the word took an S or an R or a D at the end.) I usually shrugged off this question; could these people really not see that words are groupings of letters that have an existence as shapes and sounds that is separate from their existence as holders of meaning? That OXY and DOXY or ESOTERIC and COTERIES are related in ways that have nothing to do with what any of the words means? Also, I did gradually learn many meanings. For example, the definition of FOOTSIE in the OSPD is “a flirting game played with the feet.” I drew a rectangle around this meaning. Likewise, around DOURINE, which meant “a disease of horses,” and ONEIRIC, which meant “pertaining to dreams.” A definition could sometimes help you remember the word.

5. Who did you send this book to, why?

I like giving Scrabble sets together with the latest OSPD as gifts to kids four and older. Although Scrabble is already an extremely popular game, it makes me feel a little like Johnny Appleseed to sprinkle the game and dictionary here and there in the homes of children.

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Jonathan Blum is the author of Last Word, a novella, published by Rescue Press in November 2013. He grew up in Miami and graduated from UCLA and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His short stories have appeared in Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, New York Stories, Northwest Review, Other Voices, Playboy, Zaum, and elsewhere. He has taught fiction writing at The University of Iowa and at Drew University, and is the recipient of a Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award and a grant from the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. He lives in Los Angeles.