Huntington Beach writer Paul Trachtenberg traces his fascination with learning new words back to the early '70s when he was a college student reading Margaret Yourcenar's Roman history novel, "The Memoirs of Hadrian."
The book was "so very rich with words," Trachtenberg says, that he'd highlight those he didn't know with a yellow marker, look up the definitions and commit them to memory.
But Trachtenberg's word fixation didn't really take off until four years ago when he and his partner, poet and critic Robert Peters, began playing Scrabble in earnest.
To improve his competitive edge for tournaments, Trachtenberg began making lists of words in subject categories. Clothing, for example. Or Jewish and Japanese words. He'd print the words and definitions out on his computer and study them while on long walks. He'd even take his word lists to the gym, memorizing them while working out on the StairMaster.
"It is an obsession," concedes Trachtenberg, 49, who has turned his love of words and Scrabble into a book.
"Alphabet Soup: A Laconic Lexicon for Word Lovers" (Word Works; $15), compiled and published by Trachtenberg, contains 20,000 words divided into 24 categories.
Categories range from Animal Words to Visual Arts, and from Armory & Heraldry to Physiology & Anatomy Words. The words in each category are listed in alphabetical order and include a brief definition.
So under Physiology & Anatomy, you'll find everything from "abasia" (muscular defect) to "hyoid" (tongue bone) to "zaftig" (full-bosomed).
To compile his word lists, Trachtenberg pored over dozens of dictionaries and books devoted to flora and fauna, language, the arts and other subjects. He also received help from friends--a doctor advised him on entries for Physiology & Anatomy; a bird-watcher critiqued the birds list; a yachtswoman added to the nautical list.
It took him nearly three years to assemble the information in the book, which is spiral bound--all the easier, he says, for memorizing the words and definitions while walking or working out.
Trachtenberg advertises his book in the Scrabble News, the Scrabble players newsletter. He's sold about 300 copies from a 1,000 print run since October, with orders having come from as far as Hawaii and Malaysia.
"Alphabet Soup" can be ordered by writing to Trachtenberg at P.O. Box 5803, Huntington Beach, CA 92646.
He's working on a second volume--when he's not playing Scrabble, that is.
He's assistant director for Club 34, a Scrabble group that meets Tuesday nights in the back room of an International House of Pancakes in Huntington Beach. And once a month, he and Peters host a dozen players at their home for a session that runs from 8:30 a.m. until 6 p.m.
And Trachtenberg is still working on increasing his vocabulary. "I have this crazy notion," he says. "Before I die I'd like to know every word in the English language."
Also this week:
* Poet Ron Koertge will read at 5 p.m. today at the FACT Gallery, 30812 Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. Admission: $3.
* Poets Victor Infante, Chris Tannahill, John Gardiner and Jaimes Palacio will read at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Gypsy Den Cafe and Reading Room in the Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa.
* Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, author of "Bloody Secrets," will speak and sign at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Coffee, Tea & Mystery, 13232 Springdale St., Westminster.
* Sandra Haldeman, author of "At Our Core: Women Writing About Power," will sign at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble in Metro Pointe, 901 S. Coast Drive, Costa Mesa.
* Faith Heller Willinger, author of "Eating in Italy," will sign at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Barnes & Noble in Metro Pointe. 901 S. Coast Drive, Costa Mesa.
* World traveler Martha Marino, author of "Asian Adventure: Amusing Tales From Thailand and China," will speak at the Town Hall lecture series at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at South Coast Medical Center, 31872 Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. Free, but reservations are required; call (714) 499-7202.
* Michael Connelly, author of "Blood Work," will sign at noon Saturday at Book Carnival, 348 S. Tustin Ave., Orange.
* Roger Jones, author of "California: From the Conquistadores to the Legends of Laguna," will sign at 1 p.m. Saturday at Upchurch-Brown Booksellers, 384 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach.