Dictionary of the Undoing

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.
$15, 192 pages.

FROZEN between climate crisis and political stasis, our current moment seems too large for any of our usual devices to grasp. Yet in Dictionary of the Undoing, John Freeman — writer, book champion, and editor of Literary Hub and Freeman’s — trusts the most human device of all: language. In twenty-six short essays on words from agitate to zygote, he peels back cliché to expose the fresh surface of meaning, reinvigorating words and the thinking we can do with them. “One of the points of this book,” he writes, “has been to navigate around the rhetorical acts of sabotage, to grab the pump levers of language and turn the lights back on. Words are what connect us: a shared belief that the world is there and can be described and our tongues, languages, mouths make that possible.”

In Brian Murphy’s How Writers Write podcast, Freeman says that to compose this book, he sat down every day for sixty days and wrote until a draft was finished. Perhaps this accounts for the best-of-both-worlds feeling of this little book: capacious yet concise, ambitious yet down-to-earth, clearly focused and structured yet still with a spaciousness that invites contemplation. It’s a palm-size paperback that fits in a backpack, coat pocket, or hand. Its small chapters are psalmic in their intensity, meditative points of contact with big truths that continue to radiate, quietly, in your head.

Perhaps this is because every one of Freeman’s twenty-six short essays, from justice to monument to teachers, is grounded in the same through line: bodies. “Bodies tilting away from darkness — this is what hope really is,” he writes. In “Body” itself, he foregrounds the fact that “as citizens, wherever we are, we have a right to the sovereignty of joy in our bodies.” Like Ross Gay, Freeman places this “sovereignty” at the center of meaningful life and its natural overspill — social responsibility and, therefore, social change. But he’s also unafraid to be real, calling out dangers we shouldn’t euphemize away:

In societies where the body and speech are not restricted, though, the internet can sharpen the damage of tyranny; because the internet is not a collection of bodies, its ethics can carom away from decency In these moments of weakness, tyrannies win because we are breaking the bonds out of which hope develops.

Elsewhere, he approaches the internet with irony. “Part of the modern twenty-first-century you — the adorned, well-regarded you — is that you are the chief,” he writes. Of course, the reality of algorithmic engineering and user manipulation means that this dream of individual chiefhood is an illusion, one that thoughtful books can help pierce.

I look forward to sharing Dictionary of the Undoing with my students, who will be as inspired by it as I have been — and who join me, John Freeman, and everyone who loves language in continuing to use it for good.