Saturday, May 16, 2015

Reading the OED book review

Personal accounts can offer a window into other people's passions. Part of the joy of reading nonfiction is that one gets to know about these very real experiences even if one doesn't share them. In Reading the OED Ammon Shea gives us an account of him reading every single word from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Alphabetically, each letter contains his observations on reading and owning dictionaries in general and the OED in particular, and a list of words starting with the letter in turn that for a number of reasons he finds notable, funny, unexplainable, etc.  Of both groups I stay with the anecdotal over the lists for the human element. My favorite parts were him reading in the basement of a college library and talking of mice and nonexistent rats, his views on the 'library people' and the prodigious amounts coffee he drinks which should deserve part of the credit for pulling the project through. The lists of words for their part never really caught on with me, but were not boring either. On the practical side I'm quite sure that I'll not be using any of them soon (except zugzwang which already is part of my vocabulary).

It is perhaps unavoidable to compare this one with AJ Jacobs' The Know it All in which the project was to read the whole Encyclopedia Britannica and relate what was like. Reading the OED doesn't capture Jacobs' charm and spontaneity, but there is something more endearing in Shea's exploit. Jacobs loves knowledge; Shea loves words and the dictionary, the medium itself. 

Comparing both accounts, Shea has the tougher bone. Part of the challenge of the OED's own physical being. It is large and heavy; the font small and the words dense; the citations abundant and in older English in large proportion.  Along the way Shea describes the various pains and aches he develops from reading too much. I feel amazed and slightly horrified at what he puts himself through; nonetheless, he loves every second of it.

I believe that Jacobs' project ultimately fails though because of its unsystematicity. He goes through the material alright but without an overarching plan for organization, use and retention.  Of course, had he done so, he'd probably still be at it and we wouldn't have his book. Shea on the other hand just wants to be delighted and share and by both counts he succeeds  (for my part I'm casting my lot with the Great Books of which we'll talk next time).

Would I recommend you go buy it? Can't really. For all its virtues it still is a niche account. His enthusiasm for dictionaries and words comes across, but didn't win me entirely over. I still find the whole project extraordinary.  Reading the OED has its place, but that would be after the The Know it All, or instead of, if you love words over just facts.

(I've decided to take up on one challenge Shea puts forth in this book, and do some stunt reporting of my own. We'll talk about that in a couple months' time)


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