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I am a woman out of time.

Before you ask, no, this doesn't mean I've been whisked away from my humdrum and boring existence as a 23rd century algae farmer by a man in a blue police box.  Nor does it mean I heroically crashed a supersonic plane in the 1940's and have spent the intervening decades as an Ellidsicle in the Greenland ice sheet.  It doesn't even mean that I had a jolly time bowling with a bunch of funny little men with Dutch accents and was stupid enough to fall asleep before they rolled me out of the bowling alley into a waiting carriage.

The above are all romantic, and sometimes tragic, and very colorful, but they're not what I mean when I say that I'm out of my time.  

If you saw me pondering citrus fruit at the Big Y down in Southampton, or pumping gas at the Hess station on Route 116 near my office, or selecting graphic novels at the library near the Garret, you wouldn't think there was anything different or strange about my inner life.  Externally I'm a typical middle aged American woman:  a gray streak at my part line, extra pounds at the midsection, extra skin at the neck.  Oh, I might be wearing a t-shirt from Pennsic, or Arisia, or with the logo of a superhero or the image of a wizard, but beyond that, I could be anyone in this great land of ours.

Internally it's another matter.

I've always been somewhat at odds with the time I'm in.  I wasn't aware of this for many, many years, but as I've gotten older I've become almost painfully aware that when it comes to being a typical member of my generation, doing typical things, I am pretty much a bust.  I hated rock music until the 1980's (missing out on the glories of 1960's pop while it was going on), didn't take my writing seriously until I was in my 40's (thus meaning I'm now living an impoverished bohemian lifestyle now instead of in my 20's and do not, do NOT ask me about how I'm planning to pay my property taxes because it probably involves selling jewelry), didn't get political until my 40's (or, why I was stupid enough to vote for John Anderson instead of campaigning for Carter in 1980), and never sowed my wild oats when I was still young enough and sexy enough to find someone to help me with this fascinating process.  

It's as if I'm an iPod that hasn't been properly synced.

The above, though, is simply life its own self, and could have happened to anyone.  Plenty of other people didn't do what was expected of them when they were expected to do it.  No, the real way I'm out of time is all in my head, and it's all my parents' fault.

You see, my parents were a little bit out of their time, too.  Mum was born when her mother was 44, which would be pushing the envelope today and was all but unheard of then.  Dad waited until he was out of graduate school and had a job to start looking for a woman who would be more than a casual date.  They married when they were, respectively, 27 and 32, almost a decade past the age of first marriage in 1955, and they didn't have me for five more years.

That means that when I came into the world, my Dad was almost 37.  Mum had turned 32 ten days earlier.  Is it any wonder that I didn't talk, or act, or think like my agemates?  

It wasn't simply my parents' ages that made me different, either.  Dad was a combat veteran who'd gone to graduate school in glamorous New York, paying his way thanks to the GI Bill and pickup work playing the trumpet for dance bands on campus, and was well on his way to confirmed bachelorhood when he asked my mother out for that crucial first date.  Mum had worked for eight years before I was born and always resented having to list herself as a "housewife" on her census form; in her heart she was still a teacher, and a damn good one, not a little girl who combed her hair and fixed her makeup because soon Dad would walk through the door.  They had little in common with the typical late 50's/early 60's couple who'd married right out of high school or college and had started producing offspring a year or so later; they weren't old, but they sure weren't young, and by the time I was ready for school the cultural differences were really starting to show.

If that weren't enough, three of Mum's siblings (my uncles Oscar and Lou, and my aunt Betty) were involved in raising me almost from birth; they lived about a mile from us as the crow flies, and Betty was my only babysitter until we moved to Cleveland when I was six.  And since none of them ever married, Mum was the baby of her family, that meant that her newborn was surrounded not by the usual gaggle of young mothers, slightly less young fathers, and cousins of divers ages, but by a 36 year old spinster who regularly compared herself to a summer's day while she la-di-da'd her way through life, a steelworker in his 40's who swore like the trooper he'd once been, and a quietly influential CPA who was almost 50.

Is is any wonder that I was reading by the time I was three, and reading at the college level before I hit junior high?  Preferred classical music to all others when I was 8?  Was reading satirical comic strips like Pogo in elementary school and actually getting most of the jokes?  Reading two daily newspapers cover to cover, editorials included, before I hit puberty?

Is it any wonder a friend in college once told me that I reminded her of a middle aged school teacher?  And she wasn't joking?

Worst of all, not only did I not try to blend in and become a good little member of the Polyester Double Knit Generation, I deliberately tried to be different.  I devoured books about other times and other worlds, from Middle-Earth to the Elizabethan era, the Norman Conquest to the Third Reich.  Mum later admitted that she was on the verge of strangling me if I'd shown up in the kitchen one more time and bombarded her with four hundred year old gossip about Mary, Queen of Scots, but was so proud that I actually was interested in history that she just chopped the vegetables for dinner a little faster.  And though I wasn't allowed to talk about what would become a lifelong obsession with World War II around the dinner table because it would upset my uncle Lou, that didn't keep me from reading everything I could about that greatest of all wars.

If that wasn't bad enough, I read so many mid-century British mysteries and thrillers, from Dorothy Sayers and Philip MacDonald to Agatha Christie and Alistair MacLean, that's it a wonder I didn't start speaking in a trick British accent.  And because British fiction, especially that written before the war, was full of references to folklore and events and writers I'd never even heard of, I spent countless hours going through encyclopedias, anthologies, books of quotations, and similar reference works until I was more familiar with the Seven Sleepers than I was with Stevie Wonder.

It's as if I wanted to be a girl out of time.

Tonight I bring you not a relic from the depths of Badbookistan, but a book of wonders.  Mum gave me my first copy for Christmas when I was in college, and I all but read it to death.  Elegantly written and chock full of fascinating information, it's truly one of the most important books I've ever read, and a must for anyone who wants to know about the household phrases and literary/social/intellectual commonplaces of the 19th and early 20th centuries:

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by Rev. E. Cobham Brewer and a cast of thousands - "Ebenezer Cobham Brewer" sounds like a character from a Dickens novel, or at the very least an Eminent Victorian.  This was not far off; Brewer, the son of a Baptist  schoolteacher, not only had a name worthy to stand with "Mr. Pumblechook" or "Madame DeFarge," he had a luxuriant beard that would done Alfred, Lord Tennyson or even Dickens himself proud.

Not only did Brewer have a quintessential Victorian beard, he had a quintessential Victorian university education (Trinity College, Cambridge) and a quintessential educated, respectable, upper middle class Victorian knowledge of literature, art, music, mythology, history, science, and philosophy.  His childhood in a home where education was valued and knowledge passed along left Brewer with a love of reading, learning, and literature, and even though he was ordained as a Baptist minister, he soon realized that pulpit life was not for him.  He joined his father as a teacher and soon realized that he had a talent for words, but unlike so many eminent, intelligent, bearded Victorians with a literary bent, he decided that his metier was not novels, or poetry, or political commentary.

Oh no.  Brewer would do something just a little different.  He would pass along the fruits of his education to those who wished to learn but, for whatever reason, could not obtain the rich, broad, deep education that Brewer himself enjoyed.  

This lifelong interest in explaining the wonders of learning and the joys of knowledge to the public first manifested itself in A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar, an 1840 volume that we would now describe as "popular science."  Written in the form of a catechism, it explained scientific concepts in a clear, understandable style that proved to be exactly what the Victorian public wanted.  Sales were good enough that Brewer was able to leave England and take a nice long trip around Europe, where he explored, read, learned, and took notes on any and every thing of interested.

He also answered his fan mail.  And got the idea of another book.

Many of Brewer's correspondents, it seemed, were lacking in the sort of broad, sweeping education available to a university-educated schoolmaster's son.  They were bright enough - they were reading a book about natural science, after all - but when it came to classical literature, or mythology, or general historical knowledge, they were sorely lacking.  Many of these folk were anxious to fill these gaps in their education, and since Brewer was clearly an intelligent man with a great store of knowledge, they wrote to him in surprisingly numbers with their questions.  

Brewer, no fool, saw the makings of yet another bestseller.  Not only that, he saw a way for the rising middle class, which all too didn't have the educational background (or the money, or the right set of gonads) to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, nevertheless to learn enough about the folklore, literature, and history of Shakespeare's sceptre'd isle that even if they'd never actually attend a university, they'd at least be able to understand and enjoy works written by those luckiest of men.

Thus it was that Brewer set to work.  Beginning in 1856, and taking only the time he needed to write another reference work or two (including a ringing defense of theology against Darwinism and a book called Sound and Its Phenomena which sounds fascinating if obsolete), he worked what would become his magnum opus for the next fourteen years.  

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable came out in 1870, and it was an instant hit.  It primarily centered on literature, the core of Victorian knowledge, with entries on everything from literary characters to historical events, famous authors to Greek myths, legendary heroes to poetic forms, nursery rhymes to buildings or cities or animals that might crop up in a book...

Oh, it had everything to appeal to a bookish person, and appeal it did.  So popular was the Dictionary that Brewer found himself writing yet more reference works, from
A Dictionary of Miracles: Imitative, Realistic and Dogmatic, to The Historic Notebook, With an Appendix of Battles.  The Dictionary was an instant classic, a must-have for the genteel lover of literature, and despite advancing age (and baldness, which may be why Brewer grew that wonderful beard so he'd have some hair on his head) Brewer revised and updated the Dictionary with plenty of more entries, references, and catchphrases in 1891.  He even wrote a similar (if not necessarily identical) volume, The reader's handbook of famous names in fiction, allusions, references, proverbs, plots, stories, and poems, a book that managed to distill the meat of the Dictionary and expand it with numerous other entries.  By the time Brewer died in 1897, rich in years and whiskers, his place as a literary popularizer for the masses was secure.

The Dictionary, now usually simply called Brewer's, has never gone out of print.  It's updated periodically to incorporate new household names and remove ones that were obscure even by Victorian standards, but it's now in its nineteenth edition and still sells as well as it ever did.  There are companion volumes, too, covering the twentieth century and Irish literature.  And of course there are dozens of similar volumes covering everything from American literature to Grateful Dead lyrics to angels to specific writers to individual cities....

Is it any wonder that I loved it so?  And still love it, as battered and worn as it is?  And just downloaded a sample of the original to my Nook?

I may be a woman out of time, but these e-reader things have their uses.

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So - are there are any reference works you particularly love?  Do you have a copy of Rev. Brewer's best known book in your knotty pine rumpus room?  A luxuriant beard?  An encyclopedia?  Let us share what we've learned on this cold Saturday night -

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Jan 11, 2014 at 06:01 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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