Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland; Bring a Dictionary

I believe I have mentioned that among the wares at the Newberry Library Book Fair are dusty, discarded dreams. Whether these dreams were discarded because they were fulfilled and thus obsolete, or because their owners moved on to better or at least newer dreams, or because the owner of the book died with the dream still beckoning, we never quite know. But here are the discarded dreams, in the form of books on how to lose weight, how to become charming, how to attract (or get rid of) a lover, how to attain six-pack abs, how to travel around the world, how to get a better job, how to retire early, so on, and forth. We dust off the dreams and set them out to tempt new dreamers. And because dreams sell pretty well, we do it every year.

This was brought to me anew by a donation which included a kind of landmark: the Book Fair’s very first book and tape from Rosetta Stone. You know the Rosetta folks: they’re in malls and on infomercials, offering a quick, guaranteed way to learn a new language. Go to their website and you’ll find Hindi, Farsi, and Mandarin, as well as two varieties of Spanish and two varieties of English.

It’s a popular dream. THIS, says the dreamer, is the year I learn German. This is the year I teach myself Welsh. This year I start to read Anglo-Saxon, so I can write my own translation of Beowulf, and show Seamus Heaney where to get off.

And, one way or another, we wind up with ‘em: books, tapes, videocassettes, CD-roms, records (HOW many people BOUGHT that French series from the Chicago Daily News, anyhow?) Maybe they worked (you don’t need the textbooks once you’ve learned it) and maybe not, but they’re all here: Berlitz Albanian for Travelers, Tagalog for Dummies, Frommer’s Frisian Phrasebook, and (our language pricer’s favorite) Gimmick Italian in 32 Lessons. (He insists on real Italian, not Gimmick Italian) You can have Japanese in Fifteen Minutes, Arabic in Ten Minutes a Day, and Essential Norwegian (the language pricer says he already knows all the Norwegian HE considers essential). Speak Esperanto like a native or learn Conversational Classical Greek in case you meet any 4,000 year-old poets from Athens. And, of course, there’s dear, dear Muzzy (“Yes, that’s French they’re speaking, and NO, these children AREN’T French!”)

Who donates these second-hand dreams of being bilingual, trilingual, heptilingual? Are they tied in to travel dreams? (We all want to go exotic places and see exotic things but not let anybody know we’re from out of town.) Are these symptoms of a suspicion that the translators leave out the GOOD bits when a book is turned into English? Are they something more complex? (Fess up now: some of these booklets on how to speak Polish to your maid or Spanish to your gardener come from people who wash their own dishes and whose garden is in a box on the windowsill.)

I suppose it doesn’t matter. If you buy it, it’s part of YOUR dream, and a dream none the worse because someone else dreamed it ahead of you. Wanna learn Hebrew, Swahili, Provencal, or Catalan? Come browse the Foreign Language section. Rosetta Stone has joined the club, but if YOUR dreams involve Muzzy or M. Charles Berlitz, we can serve you there, too. (Please don’t tell me what you dreamed last night about Muzzy chewing on the Rosetta Stone. I can’t sell every second-hand dream.) 

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