» Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King's new novella questions mankind's ability to trust others.
[02.21.2011 by Bridget Doyle]


 » The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
[12.24.2010 by The LAS Staff]


 » Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
[11.04.2010 by Cory Tendering]

Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Fat Possum

October 14, 2008
As the old public service announcement slogan went, reading is fundamental. Love of the printed word is nothing unusual, but from his first complete reading of a dictionary a decade ago (the 1934 edition of Webster's New International), Ammon Shea has been enamored with words as individual units. Around the turn of the millennium Shea met a woman named Madeline, a commercial trader of dictionaries who turned him on to "the ineffable joy that can be had in pursuing the absurd." Then a few years ago, after considering it for some time, Shea's enamorment became what some would consider an obsession, as he set about reading the Oxford English Dictionary in its entirety. It may seem absurd from a distance, but obsession is a universal human trait, and in Shea's terms even the casual reader can understand the undertaking; as he puts it, just "think about your favorite book, and how endlessly satisfying it would be if that book never really ended." The Oxford English Dictionary, which celebrated its 80th birthday this year, isn't endless, but it is about as close as you can get in an analog format; at 59-million words it is many times longer than the longest novels.

Commonly known by its initials, the OED, which took seven decades (from the date of its approval, by agreement between the Philological Society of London and Oxford University Press) to complete, is predictably full of both fascinating (a minimifidian is someone with a minimum of faith in something) and banal (cellarhood is the state of being in a cellar) words. The ultimate English reference book doesn't require any special talents to read, but tackling it takes a certain level of dedication. It is like any dictionary or thesaurus, only there is much more of it. Putting it into perspective or perhaps trying to rationalize it, Shea is keen to make metaphorical parallels between his quest and that of legendary mountaineer George Mallory (who died attempting to summit the world's highest peak), and the comparisons are not completely invalid. Though many people climb any number of the scores of 14,000-foot mountains in the United States each year, only a handful will ever venture to the Himalayas. The OED is, quite simply, the Mount Everest of word books, and with Reading the OED Shea set about compiling the entries that he imagined laymen would consider worth knowing about, "if only they didn't have to read the whole damn dictionary in order to find them." In other words, as Shea himself is quick to point out, Reading the OED is a cheat sheet to the experience of paging through the most comprehensive assemblage of words in the English language - he read the OED so that you don't have to.

Simply considering his work an OED CliffsNotes, however, is a disservice to Shea, who devoted a year of his life to reading the original. Rather than simply running his eyes across every letter on each of the book's nearly 22,000 pages, Shea set out to truly confront the tomes and, one might argue, come to a deeper understanding of the world around him through their contents. For what is the history of time but an aggregation of words? As anyone without the benefit of a sense can attest, there is no cognitive existence of anything that cannot be related in words. Even something indescribable is vague, inenarrable, overwhelming. A tree may fall in a forest when we are not there to bear firsthand witness to it, but through language we can still understand and relate to the experience, imagine the cracking and splintering of trunk and branches and the suffocating thud as it thunders against the earth. Just as a palette of words can lend richness to the records of time and place and person, the OED provides layers of depth to the words themselves. Beyond definitions both common and obscure, the OED also provides a word's etymology and charts out the meandering path of meaning over hundreds of years.

Along with the daunting size of the OED - for his project Shea read the second edition of the dictionary, from 1989, which consists of nearly 140 pounds of paper, ink and glue spread over twenty books - there is also a certain physical strain that comes with reading it. After diving into the first volume (A-Bazouki), it doesn't take Shea long to feel the strain on his eyes from the constantly shifting typefaces and text sizes (there are some 750 different typographical characters used), the variation of which is amplified by his own back-and-forth between the pages of the OED and the handwriting in his notebook. There is not only a psychological component to the task (staying focused and not mindlessly scanning words) but also a physiological one (blurred vision, neck pain, headaches), a truly all-encompassing reading war waged from an armchair.

The process behind Reading the OED was not a brief one, nor was it uninformative. Even reading Reading the OED is educational. With the average English speaker possessing a working vocabulary of less than 20,000 words, one can imagine the sheer volume of interesting finds tucked within the OED's nearly 300,000 entries, which are defined and augmented by nearly 2.5-million quotations. If you imported the text into a computer application the program would certainly lock up while attempting to tally the 59-million word count. Even for an avowed wordnerd and dictionary veteran like Shea, the OED is overflowing with new information.

The less textually inclined might assume that Reading the OED is a whipping out of Shea's linguistic machismo, a sort of academic trophy, but the author freely admits early and often that his lexicographic fetish is just that, and like any fetish is rather useless in the course of everyday life. Rather than simply regurgitating what he has read and bragging on his accrued vocabulary, Shea presents 26 chapters (one for each English letter) summarizing the crème de la crème of those words he found "outrageous, funny, or archaic and deserving of resurrection," arranged alphabetically and prefaced with a potpourri of personal history, language trivia, and societal observations. We don't just learn that, rather hilariously, to be tardiloquent is to talk slowly, we also learn why Shea grew up spending time with books rather than television and what his thoughts are on The Library People.

English, in present and past vernacular, has always been a thoroughly democratic language, and it will only become more so in the future as globalization and technology infuse it, as life in general, with an ever more rapid sense of growth. There are hundreds of new additions and revisions to the OED each year. Some words are interesting enough to merit being committed to memory, for resuscitation as cocktail party banter, but as one might expect a large chunk of the OED is forgotten as quickly as it is read. Redundancies abound, and by the time he hits the letter B Shea has already noticed that there are a litany of words synonymous with "a stupid person" and nearly as many to describe "untidy" women of dubious moral character. The latter phenomenon is attributable to the fact that the written record of language, like that of history or any faith, is a product of the work of men and as such is mired in misogyny. In addition to gender, the OED and the English language have also been deeply shaped by geography, and for utmost authenticity its etymologies are given in Greek and Latin, which Shea does not read. Ironically, it would seem that his fascination with his own language has, in a certain manner, left Shea unable to fully understand it. But when a guy takes a year out of his life to read the single largest dictionary in history, one can hardly fault him for not being fluent in other languages.

SEE ALSO: www.ammonshea.com
SEE ALSO: www.oed.com
SEE ALSO: www.penguin.co.uk

Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other articles by Eric J Herboth.



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