The Dictionary- a book which we will all read at some stage in our life, but never from start to end. In fact, you'll never read the whole thing no matter how small or 'pocket-sized' it may be. The unusual nature of this book requires an entirely different method of reading.
There are two main reasons to use a dictionary; to look up the meaning of a word or, less frequently, to find the spelling of a word. The first is relatively straightforward, if you know how to spell the word. The second is more difficult because the concept is flawed in itself- if you don't know how to spell it, how do you know what to look for?
I encountered this when I was very young; I remember in Primary School asking my teacher how to spell words, only to be told to look them up in the dictionary. It's ok if it's a word with a tricky ending, like ary/ery/ory etc. Once you get the start right, any variations on the end are close together. But often the difficult part of the word comes early and then you're in trouble. If you wanted to look up the word Wednesday, you would have no hope. You'd be stuck around the wen- words, completely oblivious to the letter d's imposture.
Even worse is when attempts to spell the word phonetically in no way match the word itself. Take 'pharmacy' for example; an inexperienced youth might end up languishing in the F section, half the book away. Eventually they would give up out of frustration, to be told that for some reason it starts with a ph, which they could have been told at the start. As I said, the concept of looking up a word you cannot spell in an alphabetically arranged index is intrinsically flawed.
As you go through your life, depending on your level of literacy and giving-a-damn factor, you will develop your own method for browsing the dictionary. I personally feel that I am very good at this; I take pride in finding words as quickly as possible. Then again, I am potentially the only person who cares. But based on my own experiences at least, there are methods you develop to make the process easier. As you use the dictionary more, you get a sense for where the different letters are. In this way you can open to the right area and skip large numbers of pages without missing the word you want. You also get a feel for which letters are more common, and common prefixes too.
All of this makes it easier to find words; the equation changes dramatically however when you are using a bilingual dictionary. The two predominant uses become finding the English meaning of a foreign word, or finding a translation for an English one. The latter is more difficult because you often may need to look up several English synonyms to find the right word. It is also a good idea to check the meaning of the word you choose, in case you've confused homonyms. For example, a friend of mine once wrote about a game of rugby for a French exercise. Unfortunately the word for 'game' which he wrote was game in the sense of animals you hunt. Our teacher thought it was funny though, since the team was the Wallabies and it was fitting of the way they were slaughtered in the game!
It becomes even harder when you are dealing with an ancient language such as Latin. Here you have a language spread over a definite extent, but changing throughout. Not only do you have to find a suitable word, but you need to look further to check when it was used, by whom and in what contexts. This results in the need for extremely large dictionaries if you need to be accurate, or if you have a smaller one, it can be very vague or general. So you spend the rest of your life with piles of large dictionaries that require superhuman strength to carry around. There's one Latin dictionary written by the 'learned Germans' which has been going for 150 years and they have only got to R. The reason it has taken so long is that it details every use of every word in extant texts. It'll probably need a large crane.
One of the worst things about using a bilingual dictionary is when you have a word to look up, you painstakingly find the exact place it should be and then realise you are looking at the wrong half of the dictionary. Believe me, you can forget which language you're looking in and only focus on the letters. It is immensely frustrating having then to go through the whole process knowing you just wasted your time.
There are also specialist dictionaries; thesauruses, rhyming dictionaries, crossword dictionaries, antonyms and homophones etc, and my favourite, the 'Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate.' This includes wonderful words such as 'callipygian,' having shapely buttocks; 'glossolalia,' the gift of speaking in tongues; and 'rhabdomantist,' a diviner using rods to locate underground ore. As you can tell, this book is fun!
Anyway, dictionaries can come in all shapes and sizes and recently there has been a move towards electronic versions which may eliminate all these problems. I really like the Dictionary/Thesaurus widget on my Mac's dashboard. It is very comprehensive and useful, especially the thesaurus for cryptic crosswords. One thing which I have realised using dictionaries has made me do is to think of the alphabet in two halves. For me, the first half of the alphabet goes from A to L; any letter between those seems early in the alphabet and so if I am looking up a word starting with those I will turn to the first half. The latter half is obviously M-Z and they all seem near the end of the alphabet. Because I think of it like this, I have almost come to think of L and M being a long way apart in the alphabet, despite being neighbours. Just one of those weird things I guess.
So there you have it, a completely inconsequential and irrelevant look at lexicography! Dr Johnson would be proud. Let's hope this doesn't descend into logomachy!