By Bruce McKinney
Two stops from Times Square and a ten minute walk toward the Hudson River brings me to a lovely building to meet Madeline Kripke, an extraordinary woman who lives among her books, manuscripts and ephemera in a frenzied embrace with words and their history. Emotionally charged words in particular have pride of place.
Getting through the front door is an undertaking for open space long ago lost its argument with material and conventional order. Today the printed word in many forms occupies all the expected spaces such as shelves and also every table top and counter. The aisles, such as there are, feel like paths through a rain forest - the accumulation on both sides relentlessly encroaching on the ever-imperiled lanes. The material is not of the ground cover variety either but rather more like pyrocanthus and jonquil. Keeping the paths clear is a joyous job for what competes for space is a burgeoning collection of what was, until a few years ago, difficult to obtain -- an accumulation of the interesting and obscure in the field of historical lexicography: the history of the writing, editing, or compiling of dictionaries and the relevant principles and procedures involved. This is a tornado in a field that is at once obscure and enlightening.
This is the life and obsession of an American original. Madeline is building a collection that has the makings of that rare prize -- the combination of intelligence, timing and money -- bound together by an obsessive commitment to completeness. The timing of the quest is rare: that best moment to drink the Bordeaux.
Now on the early slopes of 60, Madeline some years ago saw the emerging internet opportunity to unearth the detritus that together is the history of words. The opportunity was stunning as the material was often obscure, its significance frequently unappreciated. On the net it was emerging as the gentle pitter-pitter-patter of a summer rain; no thunder and lightening heralding its arrival. Rather it came on the feet of angels, lighter than air, detectible to the aware but understood by very few, the every day volume uncertain but the opportunity extraordinary. The result today is a lovely apartment bursting at the seams, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with the unknown and the uncommon, cheek by jowl with material yet to be opened, stacked in boxes and commanded to sections where fellow members of the categories are, in many cases, parading together for the first time. This is what the collecting of books, manuscripts and ephemera is all about: the gifted in pursuit of the valued.
Thus dictionaries and their related manuscripts and ephemera once assigned to their section are partitioned by category such as army, navy, air force, aviation, trucker, gambler, feminist, Wall Street, cowboy, gay, French, black, and Yiddish to mention only some of the categories of specialized language and subject Madeline has acquired. There are of course others such as dictionaries of various American Indian languages, an entire category of the slang language of Argentina as well as a very large range of the language of crime. If it is a dictionary or its cousin, the gathering of defined words in less formal settings such as in pamphlets, newspapers and magazines, she is interested.