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Various Authors: The Future Dictionary Of America


The Future Dictionary Of America

Author: Various Authors
Publisher: McSweeney's

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The most obvious inspiration for the snippet-anthology The Future Dictionary Of America is Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, a similarly drawn collection that treated bitter, wry, and often hilarious takes on the world as canonical rather than unusual. But where Bierce's book welled up with hopeless misanthropy, The Future Dictionary channels its cynicism in limited directions, filling in the gaps with unbridled optimism. Created as a fundraising device to benefit "groups devoted to expressing their outrage over the Bush administration's assault on free speech, overtime, drinking water, truth, the rule of law, humility, the separation of church and state, a woman's right to choose, clean air, and every other good idea this country has ever had," The Future Dictionary imagines a far-ahead utopia where George W. Bush is long gone, political extremists debate their issues through pillow fights, and death, disease, and money are half-forgotten fables, relevant only to scholars assembling reference material.

Hardcover copies of The Future Dictionary come packaged with a CD of new music by the likes of Elliott Smith and Death Cab For Cutie (reviewed separately in this week's Music section), and the book presents a hodgepodge of material, from color cartoons by Michael Kupperman and Chris Ware to a Kurt Vonnegut essay to such pointed but ill-fitting supplementary materials as the Declaration Of Independence and Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba's military report on Baghdad's Abu Ghraib Prison. (The latter comes with an intro detailing George W. Bush's ejection from office in November 2004, Dick Cheney's indictment in 2005, and military legal reform in 2006.)

But the bulk of the book consists of a generally entertaining, whimsical fictional dictionary that both redefines existing terms ("Axis of evil: any perceived 'nucular' power that distracts attention from the National Debt") and creates a host of new ones. ("Voteswarm: a massive, peaceful uprising of voters following a long period of inactivity in response to a poor, inefficient, or in some cases unelected leadership.") Not all the definitions relate directly to politics: Art, culture, history, writing, relationships, and social causes all provide fodder for the many contributors, who include Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jeffrey Eugenides, Art Spiegelman, T.C. Boyle, ZZ Packer, Sarah Vowell, Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Franzen, Colson Whitehead, Stephen King, and Rick Moody.

Like so many of the polemic books on both sides of the current gaping liberal/conservative rift, The Future Dictionary is at times shrill, pedantic, and spiteful. The many definitions based on the names of current political figures ("ashcrofted: removed from or disqualified for public office on grounds of religious delusions") are usually more mean-spirited than funny or thought-provoking, and they turn the anthology's more typical wishful thinking into snide backbiting. And the authors' cuddly ideas about the ultimate blisstopia may not appeal to all readers. But at its best, The Future Dictionary sets a stable of extremely talented and creative writers free to imagine their ideal world rather than, as Bierce did, simply chronicling the current one's faults.