Collector manages to have the last word

A golden sarcophagus stands in author Peter Bowler’s living room.
Nestled between book shelves and a display case housing a parliament of owls, the glittering coffin seems out of place in his sprawling home. That is, until Peter opens it to reveal a pile of music CDs stacked neatly on its shelves.

Peter and his wife Diane are incurable collectors with books, music, antique gramophones and other precious finds from second-hand stores jostling for space on walls and shelves.

At 83, Peter was surprised to hear from his American publisher six months ago that his most famous collection, a trio of books about language, had been republished as an omnibus edition with The Superior Person’s Complete Book of Words, The Superior Person’s Second Book of Weird and Wondrous Words and The Superior Person’s Third Book of Well-Bred Words. He spent six months in the 1970s trawling through dictionaries for gems, then crafted witty ways to use them in modern conversation.

He was drawn to words he had never heard of, particularly scientific words, which might be used in unexpected and often funny ways.

“Originally, I was thinking about a couple of words which were interesting, just a little bit unusual and carried this little extra layer of meaning,” he says. “I wondered, if I was writing a dictionary how would I define these. It got me thinking, there are a lot of words I could find like this.”

Words like “helminthology”, for example, he describes as “the study of parasitic worms. Some universities give courses in this and call it Political Science”.

With his eye for the unusual, esoteric, arcane and archaic, and a bent for collecting, writing “books about funny words” seems an obvious pastime for a retired education specialist. His first book was published in Melbourne in 1979 and was an instant hit.

Then along came American publisher David Godine in 1983.  He bought the rights and found a receptive market in the US; although it never did make Peter his fortune.

Rather, he had a 40-year career in education policy. It meant he travelled a lot so he would pack a dictionary in his case and read it, page by page, hunting for words to include.

Peter was a reluctant media star, a bit bemused by the interest in his off-beat book.

But he talks enthusiastically about his 10 years as a literary critic for the Canberra Times, a part-time pursuit he took up after leaving his Government post. He says he’d knock on the editor’s door and ask what he had to review, grabbing a book from a pile on the desk to take home and read.

“I enjoyed that immensely,” Peter says. “It’s the one thing I feel I did really well.”

Today, writing continues to fill the nooks and crannies of his days, with a memoir and a novel he’s calling The Decline and Fall of Us, vying for attention.  

He says his novel, which he doubts will see the light of day, is “a serious attack on modernism – overpaid managers, computer experts who’ve got us all by the throat”.

It was inspired in part by the constant push by banks and government departments to put all of their processes online, despite many older Australians not owning a computer.

But the lexicographer isn’t getting rich through royalty cheques and doubts he’ll earn enough from the latest omnibus publication to buy the matching sarcophagus for his living room.

“I’ll be long gone,” the collector says. “Such a pity. It would be nice to have the two.”