Dept of Spec

Lover's DictionaryDept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill


The Lover’s Dictionary
by David Levithan

Back in December, The New York Times told me that Dept. of Speculation was one of the ten best books of 2014. As you know, I’m wont to believe the NYT. So I added my name to the lengthy library hold list, behind a legion of other Berkeley-ites who’d managed to toss aside their copies of the Book Review and rush to their computers faster than I (don’t let the graying peacenik image fool you, they can be an aggressive group when it comes to critically-lauded literature). Now that it’s March, the decks have apparently cleared; Dept. of Speculation arrived this week and a few other selections from the NYT Best Of list are headed my way shortly.

Being a delayed gratification type, this kind of build-up tends to sweeten the pot for me and I cracked open Jenny Offill’s slim little volume with the added enjoyment of knowing I’d had to put in my time on the waiting list. Immediately, the book felt very familiar. Not familiar in a “this author totally knows me” kind of way, but rather, familiar in a “I’ve read this before” kind of way. The other book that came to mind was David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary, another slim little novel with a lot of similarities to Dept. of Speculation.

Both books are novels that are structured like long-form poems, elliptical and lyrical in their narration. Both books use the 2nd person throughout large portions of the story (from DOS: “I remember that day, how you took a $50 cab from work, how you held me in the doorway until I stopped shaking.”) Both books involve similar themes about love, commitment and relationships (and a major plot point I won’t reveal here).

Of the two, I preferred The Lover’s Dictionary. This is not to say I disliked Dept. of Speculation, but I find it interesting that Levithan had written a similar (and in my opinion, more compelling) book a few years back, yet its acclaim seems to have started and ended on my local bookstore’s Staff Picks shelf.

Why had one book received considerable critical praise and the other—as far as my Google machine can tell me—had not? I’m going with snobbery. While David Levithan is a prolific and commercially successful YA author for whom no tears need be shed, his credentials aren’t nearly as literary as those of Jenny Offill. I don’t mention this as a judgment on either writer, each of whom is expressing themself as they best see fit, but I am judging those who judge them. (Apologies for beginning to sound a bit like the “I appreciate that you appreciate me” commercial.)

Tell me I’m crazy, tell me I’m paranoid, tell me I have baggage – I’ll agree with you on every count – but I can’t help feeling a bit disheartened by my assessment. Does this mean I’m planning to nix my NYT Book Review? Negatory, as the kids say. But I will be paying closer attention to the staff picks at my local bookstore.