How Paper and Glue Books Might Lead to Your Next Best Idea

I admit that more often than not, I used the computer to answer my questions. I have a nifty widget that pops up and becomes an instant thesaurus and dictionary. But there are some times that I need to yank that old paper and glue tome off its bookshelf and turn some pages.

A few weeks ago I had an experience that reminded me what writing was like before the Internet and widgets and apps and all those time saving devices. I was doing some world building and needed some specific words to describe people and magic. I wanted the words to be special and my computer widget came up dry.

So I pushed the keyboard back, clunked down the books and started researching. My most favorite book ever, and the one that I turn to when I need some great words: Roget’s International Thesaurus Fourth Edition.

Now, I’ve searched and searched for a digital version of this. I did find a website where you can page through a virtual copy of the book (which takes much longer than the actual book). But no app or other copy of Roget’s Thesaurus has what the fourth addition has.

Most Roget’s Thesauruses are organized like your typical dictionary—alphabetical. Instead of definitions, like the dictionary, you get a string of basic synonyms and antonyms. Useful, but easily replaced by all those fancy apps.

The Roget’s Fourth Edition words differently. It’s organized by subject. This means that to look something up, you have to search twice. Let’s say you want another work for walk. First I look walk up in the index at the back (which is alphabetical). This gives me a series of options for nouns (amble, arena, circuit, gait, path, race, region, route, slowness, sphere of work, vocation) and verb (ambulate, go slow).

Already the beauty of this book reveals itself. It shoots your brain in different directions. What the heck is “sphere of work”? (I looked it up. Walk related to a cop’s beat.)

Next, you look up a number related to the shade of meaning you want. Let’s shoot for race (796.12). This comes under the heading “Contention.” The subsection 12 deals with contests of speed.

But since this Thesaurus is arranged by topic, you can look at the sections around. Section 797 is “Warfare.” The previous section is “Disaccord.” All these lead to new ideas, which is pretty much what this creativity thing is all about.

And these are ideas without distractions. You take a saunter through the Internet to look up words and before you know it, you’re searching for news reports, or checking your Twitter feed, or anything but what you intended to do.

Paper and glue books don’t have an on/off switch. You can’t go off track. So if I’m saying anything here, it’s try to unplug once in a while. Pick up a real thesaurus or dictionary and actually search for something. The time it takes to flip those pages might actually trigger an idea you didn’t even know you wanted.

Tim Kane

102 comments on “How Paper and Glue Books Might Lead to Your Next Best Idea

  1. Marc Schuster says:

    I love your point about avoiding distractions. After years of writing entirely on my computer, I broke down and bought a spiral-bound notebook yesterday. This morning I wrote for an hour straight. My hand is a little cramped, but I feel like I accomplished something. I stayed focused on what I was writing without wandering off into Wiki-land or incessantly checking my email. All of this is to say that I enjoyed your post very much. Thank you!

  2. […] I admit that more often than not, I used the computer to answer my questions. I have a nifty widget that pops up and becomes an instant thesaurus and dictionary. But there are some times that I need to yank that old paper and glue tome off its bookshelf and turn some pages. A few weeks ago I had an experience that reminded me what writing was like before the Internet and widgets and apps and all those time saving devices. I was doing some world b … Read More […]

  3. sportsjim81 says:

    This is a great post. You are right about the at-your-fingertips-information age and all the apps and gizmos that come with it. Writing, at its core, is not technologically based and sometimes you need to get back to that. As an aspiring author about to begin the outlining phase of a novel, I enjoy reading posts like this and following other novelists on their journey. I’ll be looking through your site shortly. hope you’ll check out mine sometime.

  4. Great point and suggestion. You’re right in that the internet can easily distract us from our goals.

  5. harruhsun says:

    Hi Tim,

    I agree. I love technology but at the same time I despise certain elements of our tech driven generation. Sometimes a phone or computer screen just doesn’t feel the same as a good old fashion book where you can physically highlight, write notes, bookmarks etc. Of course you can do this on certain devices as well but it is nice to get that non-digital feel. And it is less distracting.


  6. So true–sometimes even the physicality of a book can trigger an idea! Is there a synonym for Freshly Pressed? Congratulations!

  7. pezcita says:

    I remember having to do that with the old pocket-sized version! Once I learned how, I could spend hours in that book.

  8. mark jabbour says:

    “might actually trigger an idea you didn’t even know you wanted.” And how isn’t that a distraction from what I wanted? Wait, let me look up distraction.

  9. maximumfiction says:

    We foresake the happy imperfections of the sticky meander for the precision of the digital simulacra at our own peril.

  10. Glad you were Freshly Pressed! Your comment about “good enough” versus the “best I can do” hit home.
    Another avenue I have found useful to kick-start ideas is to read older books (on just about any subject), say, from 70-100 years ago. People used language differently up to and around WWI and seem to me to be much more eloquent.

  11. At least one day a week, I completely unplug. I turn off my cell phone, I won’t use the computer, and I put down my eReader…only paper books for me on that day. There are definitely fewer distractions in my life on that day! 🙂

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  12. TJ Johnston says:

    I completely agree about easy distractions on the Internet. Now, why did I get here in the first place? : D

  13. I’m still attached to my Oxford 6th edition dictionary though I stick to my PC all the time. It’s just not the same.

  14. Ric says:

    I’d just note that paper, glue, and ink books smell better than computer monitors.

  15. Interesting article!

  16. I love this! It’s a similar concept to visiting a library as opposed to searching online: When you’re at the library, often the true treasures are the books around the title for which you’re searching!

  17. She' says:

    Yay for print books. I never thought about it like this. Thanks for sharing–I love the thesaurus.

  18. Bill Florin says:

    The serendipity of paper and glue will hopefully always have a place in the life of book lovers. Good piece!

  19. Nice tip. I’am also writting something and after reading your post I sure will start looking for my good old reference books

  20. Sophia says:

    Here, here!

  21. Very well said. Thanks for using a real, solid, argument-based example; I wholeheartedly agree with you, and in contrast to what you’ve written, I worry when this kind of argument is based solely on nostalgia. I think it takes away from the credibility of our case. Long live the book, forever and ever, amen!

  22. Grace says:

    you are so right, what a great post! when i was younger my teacher told my mom not to worry about my bad spelling, because we have spell check that will do it for me. how horrible, now i need to unplug and go back to the basics.

  23. Very good story / post uh, basically that is how I went about it when writting . Points down on paper then hours through the dictionary and thesaurus

  24. Renee says:

    Great post. I agree sometimes you need to pick up a resource book. I have read many books on blogging and social media over the past few months versus using the Internet. I still prefer reading actual books and picking them up at the Library – I know old school for sure. Congrats on being FP!

  25. Great Blog. I too use paper dictionaries and thesaurus as a fail safe but I do agree that electronic forms of some of these books are very convenient. On google I use ‘define:’ and put in the word I am looking for, and that usually provides the answer. But nothing can beat my Collins English dictionary with alphabet tabs.

  26. I am new to wordpress and new to blogging, today is Day 5 of writing ChitChatfromtheCarriageHouse – inspirations. I have to admit, I am an old soul and love my dictionary, my thesaurus (your version is my version) and well, I just love how the old books smell, how you share them and bookplates and bookmarkers, and even tho my blog is on the computer, most of it’s contents come from my handwritten, calligprahy scribed works of ‘heart’ – I enjoyed your blog!

  27. molls225 says:

    My Dad still uses a hard copy dictionary to look words up. When I asked him why, he said that he likes “the hunt” for the word and inevitably, he will at least glance over other words and definitions on his way to finding the originally sought after word.

  28. jamieahughes says:

    Huzzah! Another book lover who makes an excellent point. Sometimes, the journey is the thing, and making good time isn’t always the best route. Thank you so much for such a wonderful post about a subject near and dear to my heart, and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  29. The idea of using a thesauraus is anathema to me, but maybe that’s because I’m stooopid. It feels like cheating! After many years of trying to be independentively creative while doing rubbish copywriting jobs, I finally caved in and used a thesauraus. I still cringe at admitting this. However, I still can’t bring myself to use one for my own work. I’d rather write “xxxxx” in the spot where the right word doesn’t appear, and hope it will come to me in the still of night. I feel my brain should do its own sauntering. What do you think, Tim?

    • You know, I often prefer to come up with the word on my own. I deliberately misspell the word so that it gets that red squiggly underline. I go back and see if I can think of a better word. But… a lot of those good words come from years spent flipping through my well worn thesaurus.

  30. What a wondrous observation you make, …..”these are ideas without distractions………”

    Thank You!

  31. Thank you for this post! I actually write by hand first and type it up the next day, but I still use my widgets to look up words. Next time I’ll use a tangible reference guide. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  32. solairt says:

    Would you mind sharing your widgets and apps and other time saving devices you use for writing that you mention in this blog article? Would love it! In the meanwhile, am off to amazon to find roget’s 4th edition, thanks! Kathy

    • Good luck on the book hunting. I’d check eBay or Alibris. My fav widget (for Mac Dashboard) is the Oxford American Dictionary widget. With a press of a button it pops up without me leaving my word processing program. Also, a Wikipedia widget lets me wiki something without leaving my word processing too.

  33. Lorna says:

    Oooh, well done for getting the hang of Roget’s! I struggle with it. I don’t think I’m familiar with the 4th edition though. I must say, I do prefer an alphabetical thesaurus. But yes, looks like yours has inspired!

  34. Kathryn Kane says:

    Yeah!!! Let’s hear it for REAL books, and especially this one! Just think, no batteries to worry about, the page refresh rate is completely under your control. What a concept!

    Did you know that Peter Mark Roget used Carl Linnaeus’ classification of the animal kingdom for his model with his thesaurus? I think it works very well, and like you, more than once I have had a real moment of enlightenment when thumbing through the pages.

    Thanks for a great post!


  35. Jo Eberhardt says:

    I hear ya! I love this about the Roget’s Thesaurus. I remember using one for the first time when I was about 12 years old, and falling in love with words all over again. (I was an odd child, okay?)

  36. I love my old Roget’s Thesaurus. Our intellectual pathways are changing drastically because of technology. Our physical movement, our brains, our behavior is being altered in ways we would have never expected. Thanks, the Thesaurus saves the day for me!

  37. I always have to turn the internet off when I am writing. Otherwise I get nothing done. It sounds like you could get lost in the thesaurus to though with all the cross referencing going on.

    Nice post. And congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!

  38. Debby says:

    I thoroughly agree about the bonuses of unplugged browsing. I would also like to add that going to a store that actually sells those paper and glue books can also yield valuable and unexpected results. I can’t tell you how many times I have bought and loved a book that was sitting next to or on the next shelf down from the book that brought me to the store in the first place.
    Several years ago, Borders helped to put our city’s wonderful independent bookstore out of business. Now our Borders is going out of business. There will soon be nowhere a writer can go to browse through what’s current, pick up new and interesting reads, and actually see where his or her project might fit in the actual marketplace. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other Electronic bookstores are great when you know exactly what you want to buy, but they can’t hold a candle to a real, pull a book off the shelf, hold it in your hands, flip through it, read a bit experience.

  39. Storybook says:

    Your re-discovery of a favorite book mirrors a recent experience of mine. My children, budding writers that they are, have resurrected my childhood dictionary. The kids bounced around the wear worn children’s dictionary for close to an hour just following the new leads to new ideas. Loving the new found word game they searched and discovered a word site similar to your thesaurus, words grouped by category: Not as perfect as paper and glue but still cool!

  40. Rick Gleason says:

    Like you I love my paper and glue Roget’s. Excellent post!

  41. I wonder if I can find a 4th edition somewhere? Sounds like a great resource! Good luck with the new book!

  42. RRW says:

    What you describe as your “4th Edition” Roget seems to be the only one you’ve encountered that is actually a Roget’s Thesaurus. “Roget” isn’t a registered trademark in the US, so it gets stuck on any old alphabetical crap. The whole point of a *Roget’s* Thesaurus is that it uses the hierarchical structure of concepts devised by Dr Roget.
    And I agree, it’s a brilliant writer’s tool – been using my battered old paperback one for nearly 40 years

  43. Thank, God! Someone else who appreciates real books, and specifically, reference books. On my writing table I have several dictionaries, the same goes for thesauruses, style books, Bartlett’s Quotations, etc., etc. Like you, I also often take advantage of their online kin, but honestly, nothing is as concise and detailed as the print versions. In the long run, I find the printed versions to be less time consuming than internet search engines. Plus, let’s face it, paper is still sexy! Long live the printed page!

  44. S2A 9JA says:

    hi i like to follow your blogs

  45. I have been wanting to get a good hardback version of a thesaurus as my little pocket one leaves much to be disired. Roget’s sounds like it would inspire all kinds of ideas. How wonderful. And there is nothing like flipping through a book to find the answer. I use my online or app ones all the time, but there are times it just doesn’t give me the answer.
    Great Post!

  46. Kerry says:

    I LOVE books! the smell the feel and there are just SO many that wouldn’t be any good to me digitally! I have a different Thesaurus, but keep it next to me all the time. Love the sound of this one and will look for it. Sometines I need a word, like you, and can’t find it!! Love this post!

  47. ls zhao says:

    …The time it takes to flip those pages might actually trigger an idea you didn’t even know you wanted.

    i totally agree with you and now i plan to return back to some books from computer screen.

  48. This is so true! I get so distracted with the Internet when I’m writing sometimes. I’ll open a window for or the Webster dictionary website and then somehow end up somewhere completely different (twitter, facebook, etc.) Sometimes it’s more productive to write with paper and pen, even though it takes longer than typing.

  49. Alice says:

    I will have to track down a copy! I’m always looking for something similar to this… I need a new word and just need to spark some ideas of where to go with it and this would be perfect! It’s just something that the wonders of Google have yet to master. Thanks for this post!

  50. Lisa Stowe says:

    Wonderful post. I,too, love how the thesaurus can lead the mind off into new stories. It’s like the old fashioned Dewey Decimal cards of my childhood, where you’d pull out the long narrow wooden drawer looking for a specific title. And as you flipped cards, titles would catch your eye, or descriptions, and before you knew it you were diverted into new worlds,new words, new adventures. Looking up titles at the library on the computer isn’t the same, just like using the thesaurus on this laptop of mine falls short. Far short. Plus, there’s the simple joy of the touch of paper. Thanks for reminding me.

    • Page Flirt says:

      Lisa, you brought up some fond memories with your comment! I have to say thank you for that. 😀 I remember feeling the exact same excitement looking through the Dewey Decimal cards in my elementary school library and being led to new book discoveries while I was searching for a specific book. I miss that too much for words to even describe!

  51. Lisa Stowe says:

    Second reply, sorry for hogging time. But my son recently asked his aunt why she had books on the alphabet. He pointed to a row of hardback books, one with the letter ‘A’, the next with the letter ‘B’. He had no concept of encyclopedias. Those things our parents saved so hard to give us.

  52. rangewriter says:

    Very interesting. I have an ancient old paper back Roget’s that I sometimes haul out. I had no idea that there was a new format in the 4th Edition. I’ll be looking for one of those. Thanks.

  53. suziebanshee says:

    Thank you for this post and congratulations on being freshly pressed! I had no clue they were now organizing hard-copy thesauruses by topic/connotation. Sounds great for writing and even more splendid as a GRE study tool.
    For so many reasons are the pen, paper, and book NOT obsolete. For one thing, it’s hard for the creative juices to flow when bent over a desk or table while burning your eyes out staring constantly at an LED screen! It’s simple ergonomics. 🙂

  54. Page Flirt says:

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! I really adore this post, especially when you discuss the distraction-free environment that printed books draw you in to. I find myself more focused, too, when I’m writing on paper or away from the dictionary/thesaurus websites and using the printed word instead. That actually feels more liberating than technology does!

    For some reason, I always feel like I learn more when I’m actually physically turning the pages of a book and doing research.

    Wonderful post!

    • Thank you. It’s funny. I never have any accidents around the computer, but simply having a big clunky book on the desk caused me to spill coffee over everything (doused the manuscript pages). So my distraction free environment became quite messy.

  55. metan says:

    I use the computer far more than I should to look things up, but I still think there is nothing like a real book. At the moment I am impatiently awaiting the delivery of a copy of a dictionary about historical slang. Yeah, I can look most of it up on the web, but these are old words and to flick throught an actual book and find them puts me in the right mood to use them properly on my blog. I didn’t realize that there was a Roget’s that could be used in the way you described, so now you have given me something else to add to the list of things I ‘need’….thanks!
    Congrats on being fresh pressed!

  56. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I can only say that I agree with, and applaud, the many comments already left (particularly the one about providing a “solid, argument-based example”). Hear, hear!

    Interesting coincidence that I stumble across this post in Freshly Pressed when I just today posted this old friend (author unknown):

  57. Insightful thoughts and a great post – and yes, hard-copy books just ain’t gonna die any time soon. As for writing methods, well, there are reasons why the time needed to look up a word is a Good Thing. Ideas flow and bubble around when you’re not thinking about them – and those check-out-the-Thesaurus-by-hand micro pauses are just the ticket. The organisation also tells us a good deal about how the nineteenth and twentieth century mind worked – which isn’t the way Google does it!

    Good stuff.

    Matthew Wright

  58. Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic… Thanks and keep up the good work.

  59. basher521 says:

    good igea!
    enjoy your story very much!

  60. I have banned all phone books, thesauruses and dictionaries from my house…I just use online tools.

  61. erikio says:

    To put it in a short way: Books are a Blessing.

  62. e simply have to make people aware.

  63. Nothing beats the paper books! I am a Nurse and there are times when I research something in the internet but I could not find the answers there and eventually find myself checking my facebook & twitter accounts!! Substantially, I found myself sitting in my school library and reading those heavily thick books and consequently find the answers to my questions!!! yey… 😀

  64. Great post and some really useful tips there. I love resource lists like this. Have social bookmarked it in the hope that others can also benefit.

  65. I found an old Warriner’s Grammar classroom textbook at a swap, and it was like finding an old friend. It is organized,concise, and clear . . . so much better than looking online for grammar answers. I also love my paperback thesaurus. Thumbing through pages gives the mind a little break. It’s even better because I actually have to stretch a bit to reach the shelf. I have to agree with the reply about the library card catalog drawers, too. I’ve been saying the same thing for years (mostly to people who nod with their eyes glazed over, but oh-well) about how you can find topics you didn’t even know would interest you.

    In any case, great blog post! I enjoyed it this morning with my coffee.

    • Perhaps they need an digital equivalent of the card catalog. One like Apple’s system for viewing albums. Then you could shift through the cards and be surprised by other entries.

      • thats actually a really interestin idea.. graphical interfaces that are flashy for the sake of it annoy me, but if the emulate a certain aspect of user experience then i feel they have merit.

  66. barbganias says:

    Thank you for this great post. I’m a middle school teacher and, in this day of “lap top” courses, I teach an “old-fashioned” class in language arts for 8th graders. (It’s funny — but by the time they get to me, many have given up their “lap top” status.) I love your point about creative inspiration and plan to share it with my kids. I love watching them go to bound resources because it also increases vocabulary . . . they light up when they find an interesting new word and then begin to use it in their writing!

  67. HisBeloved71 says:

    I absolutely love this post. Looking up words in reference books really does help and sparks new interests.

  68. I love paper and glue. I have several on my desk I reach for whenever I get to a word that just isn’t quite right. My favourite is the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. It provides words as they are often used idiomatically, which is hugely useful.

    I’ll grab this one as well.

  69. MandyB says:

    Very thought provoking stuff! Just goes to show that ‘technology’ isn’t always the best route to use, especially as a writer. It certainly makes you lazy and that makes for boring work.
    Thank you for this ‘food for thought’ piece, I enjoyed it and will look for that particular edtion.

  70. Jacey Faye says:

    I love this post — and I love the idea of that thesaurus!

    Thank you for sharing this; I just might have to get my hands on one of my own. 🙂

  71. Nicole says:

    Wonderful post!
    I guiltily admit that I often go off-track when I do assignments or write when using a computer. Eventhough it makes my life (as a student) so much easier as I can submit my homework and look for relevant references online with just a few clicks, but in the process of doing so, I have also wasted alot of time shuffling my iTunes, checking my Facebook account etc etc. Back to the basics is certainly in for me! (:

  72. Agreed! My other personal favorite is the AP Stylebook. I still find myself reaching for that one…

  73. gaycarboys says:

    Very true. How sad that I don’t flick through anything more than a magazine these days.

  74. Eliza Green says:

    I think you were speaking to me this week. Was having a technology related meltdown when I reand this article. Liked post so much I reblogged it!

  75. elisa beth says:

    The distraction we get on the internet, so true!
    great post! : )

  76. I totally agree with you. I can never organise my thoughts while looking at the screen. And I believe that you have to make an effort to create something satisfactory both for yourself and the reader.

  77. verda.khan says:

    Lovely post! I agree that Internet can be distracting in spite of how great source of information it is. Sometimes I just find my mind wander totally away from the lead motivation to write.

  78. I do think this whole ebook thing is ruining “real” books. I miss the pages and the feel of a book. I still borrow them from the library. But I do have to admit that when I need a dictionary or thesaurus I still turn to the internet. Laziness, I tell ya!

  79. My Roget’s International Thesaurus is one of my favorite books. I love it when I’m writing, but I also love it when I’m translating. Sometimes it’s more useful than a dictionary. “I know what that French word means; it’s like X, but not quite…” And then my Roget’s supplies me with that lovely “Eureka!” moment.

    Great post and you’re absolutely right. The way the Roget’s is organized is excellent.

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