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Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages [Paperback]

Ammon Shea


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Book Description

May 5 2009
An obsessive word lover's account of reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary, hailed as "the Super Size Me of lexicography."

"I'm reading the OED so you don't have to," says Ammon Shea on his slightly masochistic journey to scale the word lover's Mount Everest: the Oxford English Dictionary. In 26 chapters filled with sharp wit, sheer delight, and a documentarian's keen eye, Shea shares his year inside the OED, delivering a hair-pulling, eye-crossing account of reading every word.


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Review

"Oddly inspiring...Shea has walked the wildwood of our gnarled, ancient speech and returned singing incomprehensible sounds in a language that turns out to be our own."
-Nicholson Baker, New York Times Book Review

"Delicious...a lively lexicon."
-O, The Oprah Magazine

"Readworthy."
-William Safire, The New York Times Magazine

Review

"Oddly inspiring...Shea has walked the wildwood of our gnarled, ancient speech and returned singing incomprehensible sounds in a language that turns out to be our own."
-Nicholson Baker, New York Times Book Review

"Delicious...a lively lexicon."
-O, The Oprah Magazine

"Readworthy."
-William Safire, The New York Times Magazine

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  57 reviews
86 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The Letter 'I' Tastes Like It Is Full Of Capers, And I Hate Capers." Aug. 30 2008
By Robert I. Hedges - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The concept of reading the OED cover to cover simply boggles the mind, but Ammon Shea is a unique person: a man so devoted to dictionaries that 21 of the 25 boxes of belongings he brought with him when moving into his latest apartment were full of them. Shea shares with the reader insights both personal and linguistically entertaining throughout the book, and discusses many of his favorite words from the OED.

Some of my favorite words discussed in "Reading the OED" follow.

"Advesperate" means "to approach evening." I join Shea in hoping I never have the need to exclaim "Let's hurry! It's advesperating!"

"Natiform" means "buttock-shaped." I do not know when I will need this word, but I have filed it mentally under the heading "potentially useful."

"Nastify" means "to render nasty." This is a word that has obvious and numerous uses in discussing contemporary culture.

"Peristeronic" means "suggestive of pigeons," and may be my favorite word in the book inasmuch as I cannot imagine a single time I will ever need this word.

"Tricoteuse" is an even less useful word than peristeronic, in that it means "a woman who knits; specifically, a woman who during the French Revolution would attend the guillotinings and knit while the heads were rolling." Now that's cold.

I was also pleased to discover that "chalcenterous" means "having bowels made of bronze," or alternately, "tough." This is a word that I simply must remember and use at every reasonable opportunity.

Shea is clearly a lover of language, and holds lexicographers and linguists in high regard, but he writes for those of us with smaller vocabularies in an amusing and simultaneously educational manner that is never patronizing. Perhaps the best example of this is the discussion on p. 168 where he discusses the difference in technical words with precise definitions (e.g., "pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis," a rare lung disease), and the difficulty of defining small, common words, his favorite example of which is "set." The definition of "set" in the OED takes 25 pages, and covers 155 main senses of the word, some of which have up to 70 subsenses. These are truths that are obvious to lexicographers, but are uncommonly recognized outside of professional word-defining circles. These are also the underlying points that make this book so entertaining and worthwhile.

For anyone who loves to read or loves words, this is an absolute necessity. While I doubt I'll ever read the OED, I'm glad that someone has and has written such a clever book about the experience.
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "One would have to be mad to seriously consider such an undertaking." Aug. 24 2008
By E. Bukowsky - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Book to be Savored July 15 2008
By B. Leach - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Words still matter. I'm taking it slowly so that I can spend time with Mr. Shea's selections from the OED. Here's a word that is worth the price of the book: "Acnestis (n.) On an animal, the point of the back that lies between the shoulders and the lower back, which cannot be reached to be scratched." I've known the concept existed from my cats' reaction when I give them a scratch there. Mr. Shea and the OED have provided the word. A great read and that includes his entertaining description of the effort required to actually *read the OED*. Ammon Shea *read* the OED (bears repeating); we're the beneficiaries.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read July 23 2008
By L. Nocera - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Highly recommended! Ammon Shea paints a picture of himself as an obsessed, voracious, and enamored reader, but he also comes across as modest, loving, and introspective. His weird need to read and read and read transforms him into a true lover of the deep work of art that the OED seems to be (how should I know? I never read it! But I take his word). No one can know words like he does, but he lets us in on his love, and by the time we're done we deeply admire and appreciate both the OED and Mr Shea himself.

This book reminds me of Henry Miller's "The Books in My Life" (but it's more like "The BOOK in My Life"): passionate, biographical, an ode to literature and the quirky, loving individual...
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A logophile's bauble Oct. 9 2010
By Anson Cassel Mills - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
It seems churlish to disagree with so many other readers--as well as a glowing review by Nicholson Baker in the New York Times--but I found this short book as much annoying as amusing. The problem for me is that Shea knows a lot about dictionaries, but he's not deeply read in philosophy, religion, or (especially) history, and that deficiency shows in the shallowness of his writing.

The original name of the OED was "New English Dictionary on Historical Principles," and to ignore etymology, as Shea does deliberately on almost every page, means his comments on odd words dredged from the dictionary are often either variants of "Wow, isn't that odd" or weak attempts at humor. Occasionally he can be clever (as, for instance, at "enantiodromia"), but just as often there's either a leer at some word we might have looked up at age ten had we known it existed or a tut-tut at an OED definition he considers prudish.

Furthermore, this book is as much about the author reading the OED as it is about the OED itself, and although Baker finds this autobiographical excursion amusing, I was bored by the accumulated self-reference. Judging by other readers' reactions, it's likely I'm the odd man out here. You may be charmed by Shay's discussions of his backaches, glasses, and live-in girl friend. Personally, I find more than enough of that sort of thing at Facebook.

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