A good while ago I found at a Red Cross book sale (for $1.50!) a copy of the 1952 Larousse; it's a book I was very familiar with, as I grew up with possibly a slightly later edition of it, but in any case one that looked almost indistinguishable from this one, owned by my grandparents. The moment I picked it up, the book--the texture of its cloth cover under my fingertips, its heft in my hands, the layout of its pages--felt so familiar as to bring about an unmistakably Proustian moment.
Once home, I started flipping through it, for hours on end, remembering the fascination its strange, tiny line illustrations held for my eight- or ten-year old self, on rainy afternoons when I'd been dropped off by my parents and when I could find nothing better to read in the house. (I should add that my parents owned a larger, more up-to-date, mid-seventies edition of the same book, one in which all of the line illustrations had been replaced by photographs and which consequently felt significantly less magical to me).
A dictionary, if you think about it, is a perfectly closed system, words referring to other words, definitions only made up of terms that need to be defined in their turn--until images are involved. The images function as an escape hatch from that seamless tissue of verbiage, and turn the dictionary into a machine for dreaming--dreaming of faraway places, long-dead creatures, obsolete modes of transportation, and natural phenomena one will never experience at first hand. I could go on about these illustrations forever--many of them seem to have survived from earlier, even much earlier, editions of the dictionary, maybe from the 1930's or even the 1890's, and some remind me of nothing so much as the book plates I had in my complete works of Jules Verne, another one of my childhood treasures--but I'd rather just show some of them to you. I've liberated them from their labels, the better to encourage reverie; and also because, the moment you don't know what they're supposed to be illustrating, each of them can open up a whole new world. Here then are my favorites, in alphabetical order, from B to M (and do keep in mind that, in the original, each one of these is less--some significantly less--than an inch high):
In their own way, they tell a kind of story, don't they?