“Reading the OED” by Ammon Shea

Reading the OED by Ammon SheaI’ve always considered myself something of a dictionary-lover. I have half a dozen English dictionaries, ranging in size from pocketbook to tombstone, all strategically located for specific applications. The smallest ones, both from the 50’s to capture older literary words, are next to my bed for novel-reading. A chunky little Concise Oxford from 1964 does duty in my lectory, and a Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate stands by my study desk. Finally, by my computer desk I have a Canadian Oxford and my big guns, the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (all words used since 1700 plus Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, and the KJV).

As it turns out, my regard for and collection of dictionaries is minuscule compared to those of Ammon Shea. He has about a thousand dictionaries (and related books) stuffed in his New York apartment, and has actually read a number of his dictionaries, cover to cover. Dictionaries are simply the love of his life. Obviously, an obsession like that could only lead to one place: the Oxford English Dictionary. Sure enough, he spent a year reading the entire 20-volume OED, and has recounted his journey in Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.

The book consists of one chapter for each letter of the English alphabet, with a short section of prose and a selection of his favourite words from that letter. Shea writes about the OED, his love of dictionaries, and the trials of reading the OED. It takes until G to find a quiet-enough place to read (basement of a college library), and he gets such regular headaches that he comes to regard them as pleasantly familiar reading companions. The headaches abate somewhat after he breaks down and gets glasses, but his task is no less gruelling thereafter. Fuelled by gallons of coffee, he reads for something like 10 hours a day. I don’t think I could read the most engaging novels for that length of time, let alone a dictionary. The best I’ve done is read the Bible for three hours a day one Lent. Pretty paltry compared to Shea’s year-long odyssey.

I must admit I was rather disappointed with the lexicon he collected for this book. For one thing, the only information you get about each word is a short definition. There is no etymology, unless he mentions it in his annotations, and apparently copyright concerns prevented him from including any text from the actual OED, including the literary references that are its hallmark. It seems pretty short-sighted of Oxford not to allow quotations from the OED in what is more or less a book-length advertisement for it. Have you ever heard of a book about another book without any quotations? That is what we have here, and it means that the reader doesn’t really get any of the OED experience. It’s an opportunity lost, I think.

My other disappointment with the word lists is that like A.J. Jacobs, who read the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Shea devotes altogether too much attention to the things that make teenage boys giggle. He has already co-authored a book on obscure naughty words, but apparently that wasn’t enough. Not a letter went by without references to various bodily functions, and drunkenness and raunch were much in evidence also. I could have done without it.

Overall the book is light and breezy (if New York misanthropy can be light and breezy) and a very quick read. In a way it is not really for the established dictionary enthusiast. There is almost no discussion of the kind of technical work that goes into a dictionary, or indeed on the specific content of the OED. He touches on the subject when he discusses “set,” the word with the longest entry in the OED, but that’s about it. This is not a book that will tell you much about dictionaries or the OED, though Shea does provide a short bibliography with books that will.

For Shea it seems the journey is the destination. He simply enjoys reading dictionaries. No sooner had he finished reading the OED than he decided to read it again, this time without a deadline, allowing himself to look up intriguing cross-references or literary quotations. I think he might have produced a more substantial book if he had done that the first time around, but that is probably not what publishers are looking for. Feats of strength sell better than thoughtful sauntering. I guess it is up to us to do our own thoughtful sauntering.


11 comments on ““Reading the OED” by Ammon Shea

  1. Jonathan says:

    Nice review! I've got a Merriam Webster’s Ninth Collegiate by my desk. The info is all online, but I much prefer thumbing through this volume.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Thanks, Jonathan! There is certainly something more pleasant about looking things up in real books. Shea tries to account for it but with no more success than I've seen elsewhere. Maybe it just comes down to a natural affinity with things that are physical like ourselves.

  3. Fay Sheco says:

    My son is starting college this fall, and the OED is the only book he has said he must take with him. I guess that tells you all you need to know about our self-proclaimed “Word Nerd.”

  4. Sylvia says:

    More power to the Word Nerd! 🙂

  5. Uisgea says:

    Part of me hates to be pedantic. Part of me has to point out that it's spelled “minuscule,” not “miniscule.”

    Sorry, but I was seduced by the irony.

  6. Sylvia says:

    Ha! Nice catch. Thank you for that. I'll correct it immediately.

  7. wil says:

    Many years ago, my dad bought me a nice, big Random House Dictionary that I used for a long time, but nowadays I just look everything up online (currently my monitor is sitting on top of the Random House Dictionary). And although I do enjoy occasionally thumbing through a dictionary, there's no way I'd ever want to read one cover-to-cover.

  8. Sylvia says:

    What a poignant metaphor for the future of reference books—a once-proud dictionary relegated to the status of monitor-stand. Sad…

  9. Sandra says:

    I have a big fat black Websters dictionary from round about 1935 which is known in the family as Joe's Folly. It belonged to my father, whose name, obviously, was not Joe, and he bought it at some stage of his well spent youth instead of buying a car. I'm very proud of it. I never use it and at this moment is in a cardboard box in the garage, but I'm very proud of it. So was he.

  10. Jenni says:

    Thanks for the review! I've wanted to read Ammon's book for a while, and you inspired me to finally break down and get it.

    If you love etymologies as I do (and it sounds like you do) I highly recommend “Webster's Dictionary of Word Origins”. It's not comprehensive (hardly!) but the etymologies themselves are the most thorough I've seen, and SO interesting. I list is as one of the 5 books I couldn't be without if stranded on a desert island.

  11. Sylvia says:

    Sandra, I never thought of naming a dictionary! Maybe I should name some of mine. They do have character.

    Jenni, thanks for the recommendation. Yes, I find etymology fascinating. I can't abide a dictionary that doesn't have it!

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