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The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

As John Keats wrote in the opening lines of his lengthy narrative poem, Endymion,

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darken'd ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits...

And so it is with The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan: the book is a joy to read, a thing of almost breathtaking loveliness that increases with reading more, or reading it again - a thing that "moves away the pall from our dark spirits", even as it sometimes dwells on despondence. It began as a Valentine's story for his friends - David has written one every year since his junior year in high school, and many of them can be found in his collection, How They Met and Other Stories (which I adore - the one about the Starbucks guy (called, appropriately enough, "Starbucks Boy") is a particular favorite) - and ended as this lovely, somewhat experimental novel. A thing of beauty indeed.

I bought this book the week it came out, and read it, but then didn't review it right away. I was too amazed and blissed out and completely incoherent to be able to write about it. Last month, David Levithan did a reading from The Lover's Dictionary at the Free Library in Philadelphia, and I grabbed my intrepid friend Lisa (who was keen on seeing the other reader that evening, Wesley Stace (sometimes known as recording artist John Wesley Harding)), and we drove into the city to be completely impressed. The evening felt like a present, like a complete gift, because both men are marvelous readers as well as writers, and both delivered wonderful, thoughtful, thought-provoking readings - the kind that get a lot of those resonant mmmmmms from the crowd as a particularly well-crafted phrase or thought goes by, that indescribable sound that readers like to hear as much or more as laughter, when they've read a funny bit. But I digress.

I re-read the book last night, and still I lack words to praise it properly. Hence the Keats, I suppose - what better than the words of one of the finest poets ever to walk the face of the earth to pay tribute to a thing of beauty such as The Lover's Dictionary?

If you haven't read it, you should know that it is, and is not, a dictionary. It is the story of a relationship between a young couple, told in nonlinear form using a series of entries, each of which is based on a word from the dictionary. It is, naturally, organized alphabetically, beginning with "aberrant, adj." and ending with "zenith, n." David said that he got the words from a book he'd received as a graduation present somewhere along the the way - a "great words everyone should know" sort of collection. To give you an idea how the book is organized, here are four entries. None of them is next to the other in the book, by the way. There's at least one entry for each of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, but many, many more than that for quite a few letters. The letter A alone has twenty entries ("anthem, n." completely cracked me up, then blew me away, but it's not in this post). The first entry below is, however, the very first entry in the book:

aberrant, adj.

"I don't normally do this kind of thing," you said.
  "Neither do I," I assured you.
  Later it turned out we had both met people online before,
and we had both slept with people on first dates before, and
we had both found ourselves falling too fast before. But we com-
forted ourselves with what we really meant to say, which was:
"I don't normally feel this good about what I'm doing."
  Measure the hope of that moment, that feeling.
  Everything else will be measured against it.

Mmmmm said the audience, after David read this one aloud. Here are three more. Within the book, each entry starts at the top of its own page.

antsy, adj.

I swore I would never take you to the opera again.

continguous, adj.

I felt silly for even mentioning it, but once I did, I knew I
had to explain.
  "When I was a kid," I said, "I had this puzzle with all fifty
states on it -- you know, the kind where you have to fit them
all together. And one day I got it in my head that California
and Nevada were in love. I told my mom, and she had no idea
what I was talking about. I ran and got those two pieces and
showed it to her -- California and Nevada, completely in
love. So a lot of the time when we're like this" -- my ankles
against the backs of your ankles, my knees fitting into the
backs of your knees, my thighs on the backs of your legs, my
stomach against your back, my chin folding into your neck --
"I can't help but think about California and Nevada, and how
we're a lot like them. If someone were drawing us from above
as a map, that's what we'd look like; that's how we are."
  For a moment, you were quiet. And then you nestled in
and whispered,
  And I knew you understood.

hubris, n.

Every time I call you mine, I feel like I'm forcing it, as if say-
ing it can make it so. As if I'm reminding you, and reminding
the universe: mine. As if that one word from me could have
that kind of power.

I quite literally cannot speak highly enough about this book, even with the assistance of some of the great words contained within it.

Kiva - loans that change lives
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( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 9th, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
Oh wow. That looks amazing. I've always wished I could pull off a book with a vaguely Mrs. Bridge-esque format like that (although the type of book this is is obvious v. different). Gah I am trying not to buy any books right now but I want to read this!!
Apr. 9th, 2011 03:42 pm (UTC)
It's a treasure. Seriously. (Your library might have it?)
Apr. 9th, 2011 03:47 pm (UTC)
Nope. But this sounds like a keeper anyway. And I'll probably see David in July at Leaky Con Lit Day. So I'll have to buy it before then so I can gush!
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Apr. 9th, 2011 06:27 pm (UTC)
Those aren't necessarily my favorites in the book, although I like all of the entries, really. I'm particularly enamored of "incessant" today, because it expresses how I'm feeling so very well.
Apr. 9th, 2011 05:36 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reminding me about this book! I must read it!!!
Apr. 9th, 2011 06:27 pm (UTC)
Yes - you must!
Apr. 9th, 2011 06:43 pm (UTC)
oh my goodness- contiguous... *sigh*

i've only read boy meets boy by levithan and LOVED it and now, this comes next. :)
thanks, kelly.
Apr. 9th, 2011 08:14 pm (UTC)
You are going to love this book.
Apr. 9th, 2011 10:05 pm (UTC)
Well, you already know that I loved this, as well :) Great post!
Apr. 9th, 2011 11:45 pm (UTC)
It's just so very wonderful!
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Apr. 9th, 2011 11:46 pm (UTC)
Thank you. This response felt just like a gift.
Apr. 9th, 2011 10:32 pm (UTC)
Another to add to the reading stack. This semester cannot end soon enough...
Apr. 9th, 2011 11:47 pm (UTC)
You are going to be blown away by this one. SO good!
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Apr. 10th, 2011 04:36 pm (UTC)
It is even better than the excerpts, taken all together.
Apr. 10th, 2011 01:38 pm (UTC)
What an unusual and creative way of telling a story. I'll look for it.
Apr. 10th, 2011 04:36 pm (UTC)
I think you're going to like it. A lot.
Apr. 10th, 2011 04:53 pm (UTC)
tanita says:
This is a man who knows love.
I felt that distinctly when I read Boy Meets Boy, all those years ago, and here I feel it again. It's lovely.

And I met him in person once, and couldn't say anything, so no gushing for me. But I thought hard about it.
Apr. 10th, 2011 07:07 pm (UTC)
Re: tanita says:
This book is gorgeous. And David is marvelous. *happy sigh*

I know you well enough that I'd be shocked if you said you HAD gushed.
Apr. 16th, 2011 03:47 pm (UTC)
*gasp* LOVE. Added to my wishlist, very near the top.
Apr. 16th, 2011 11:44 pm (UTC)
You will love this one, Renee. Seriously!
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

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