Ammon Shea's "Reading the OED" is a paean to the English language, with all of its "glories and foibles, the grand concepts and whimsical conceits that make our language what it is." Shea readily admits that "adding a great number of obscure words to your vocabulary will not help you advance in the world." Although he has been reading dictionaries for a decade in between jobs as a furniture mover in New York City, Shea had never attempted to read the Mt. Everest of dictionaries, the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, with its twenty-one thousand seven hundred and thirty pages and approximately fifty-nine million words. When he made up his mind to tackle this daunting task, he did it with great anticipation and not a little dread. However, he need not have worried that he would come to regret his folly. Not only is the OED an enormously scholarly work, says Shea, but it is also "entertaining and wonderfully engaging." In "Reading the OED," Shea gives us a taste of what it is like to undertake such a monumental project and introduces us to words that are both "spectacularly useful and beautifully useless."
Shea divides his book into twenty-six chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. Every chapter begins with either a riff on the history of dictionaries or a description of the author's feelings and experiences during his year with the OED. For each letter, Shea offers a list of words culled from the OED that are sometimes silly, often unpronounceable, but usually engaging and out of the ordinary. He does not merely define words such as "advesperate," "onomatomania," and "latibulatek," but he also provides comical commentary that will make readers grin and, at times, laugh out loud. Shea is an amusing first person narrator who enjoys poking fun at himself as much as he loves finding remarkable words. He fuels himself with gallons of coffee and closets himself in a library's basement in order to accomplish what some might consider a dubious feat. Shea spends eight to ten hours daily at his "job," and before long, he begins to suffer from eyestrain, pounding headaches, back pain and occasionally, crushing boredom. However, the rewards make it all worthwhile. He is pleasantly surprised at the OED's ability to evoke happiness, sadness, surprise, wistfulness, and chagrin. "All of the human emotions and experiences are there in this dictionary," he insists. "They just happen to be alphabetized." Logophiles (word-lovers) will revel in this breezy, informative, and compulsively readable book.