Ammon Shea: The Making of a Bibliophile

I’ve always suspected that my parents’ reasons for steering us away from TV had mainly to do with the fact that there were four of us living in a small tenement apartment, and if one person was watching TV the rest of the family had no real choice but to be exposed to it as well. Books, on the other hand, could be read without disturbing anyone else. Most evenings from my childhood that I remember consisted of each of the four of us sitting in the living room, either reading our own book, or having a book read out loud.

My parents also had the habit of reading us bedtime stories that were completely incommensurate with our age, and when my brother and I were seven and nine we were being lulled to sleep by Richmond Lattimore’s translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Robert Fitzgerald’s Aeneid, and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. I don’t think they had the intent of educating us young, or believed that we were unduly precocious—they just read what they wanted to read, and we happened to be the ones who were listening.

I bought my first book for myself when I was ten. Stuck at a beach somewhere near the end of Cape Cod one summer, and eventually bored by the normal pursuits of summer, I happened into the clapboard shack by the parking lot that served as a combination of hot dog stand and purveyor of cheap souvenirs. In the back of the store was a shaky wire carousel full of aged paperbacks….

…I grabbed the first book that caught my eye—Three Tickets to Adventure by Gerald Durrell. It was a memoir of sorts, recounting the trials and travails of being an animal collector for zoos in the 1950s.

It was instantly the most transporting experience I could imagine. I had been an avid reader, prone to spending more time while at school in the library than in the classroom, but this was somehow different. Here, fully realized, was the idea that one could just go and find a book that one wanted to read, buy it, and get joyfully and irretrievably lost in its pages.

I suppose it helped that the book I happened upon was humorous and well written (its author to this day remains one of my favorite writers), but more important that that was the idea of escaping into a book. Suddenly it was unclear to me why people bothered to do anything besides read, unless it was of necessity.

I became obsessive about reading, and was not terribly discriminating in my tastes. Gone With the Wind interested me every bit as much as Bullfinch’s Mythology. I would find an author or a genre that seemed acceptable and proceed to shovel everything I could find into my head….

At some point my parents became concerned with the amount of time I spent reading. When I was twelve my father began kicking me out of the house on weekends so that I wouldn’t lie on the couch all day with my nose in a book. All this accomplished was to give me the impetus to go out and find new volumes to read. I would walk several miles downtown, to Fifty-firth Street and Fifth Avenue, where Doubleday had its flagship store. I was more than content to perch on an uncomfortable stool reading all day and then walk home, pretending that I’d been out and about and performing energetic childhood activities for hours.

I’ve never been prone to buying fancy clothes, or meals in nice restaurants. But I’ve always allowed myself to buy books, no matter how meager a budget I was living on at the time. Anytime I come across a book that holds the slightest potential that someday I may want to read some part of it I pick it up and bring it home. It isn’t a mania for collecting—it’s a defense against boredom. The fact that my shelves are filled with things I haven’t yet read and want to, and things that I’ve read before and want to revisit, means I will never be at a loss for entertainment at home.

—Ammon Shea, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages

Thanks to this book I have learned some very useful and pertinent words. My favourites among these are:

Petrichor: The pleasant loamy smell of rain on the ground, especially after a long dry spell.
I love this smell and never had a word to describe it. Now I do.

Psithurism: The whispering of leaves moved by the wind.
Nice example of onomatopoeia.

Lectory: A place for reading.
See also cozy reading corner.

Onomatomania: Vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word.
Reading the OED may be the cure for this, if one can tolerate the side-effects (headaches, aphasia due to the logjam of words in one’s head, being thought strange by librarians).


8 comments on “Ammon Shea: The Making of a Bibliophile

  1. CarolA says:

    This sounds a lot like my own story! Reading everything I could get my hands on from a very early age. I think I was the youngest borrower at our city library with a full membership (not just children's books) at about 8 or 9. I was using the adult library much earlier with my father's card, but I used to get impatient if he was too busy to go the library without me!
    My house is full of books, thank goodness for ebooks, at least the storage is much easier, although I am still waiting for a good ebook reader device.

  2. Seesaw says:

    Like CarolA reading everything, even the books I could hardly understand at that time. (Crime and Punishment when I was only 14, Hamlet with 15!)

  3. wil says:

    Only a scientist could come up with a word like “petrichor” (ugh) to describe the lovely loamy smell of rain on the ground.

  4. Stefanie says:

    Shea sounds like a person after my own bookish heart. Petrichor, should have known there was a word for it. One of my favorite smells 🙂

  5. Sylvia says:

    Carol, you make a good point about ebooks not taking up much room!

    Crime & Punishment at 14! Very impressive, Zdenka.

    Stefanie, as wil alludes, it's a neologism first seen in Nature in 1964. See here.

    Wil, somebody had to come up with a word for it! I think “essence of stone” is rather poetic. Perhaps you can come up with a more down-to-earth middle English version.

  6. Jodie says:

    Petrichor – I always assumed this was something the English language didn't have a word for but hurray it does!

  7. Stefanie says:

    I like “essence of stone” but maybe since it is described as perfume-like we should get a French perfume maker to come with something? Of course then we might decide to stick with petrichor! 😉

  8. Sylvia says:

    Jodie, you make me wonder if there is a word for it in other languages. Hmm…

    Stefanie—Eau de Roche?

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