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Reading the OED: BOOKS

In which the dangers of too much good education are revealed as, fresh from graduation, even an airplane book falls prey to literary criticism.

Fascinating as the unusual words Ammon Shea culls from the Oxford English Dictionary are, Reading the OED is most interesting as an autobiographical sketch of the sort of man who reads a dictionary for pleasure. Or at least the sort of man who actively cultivates a narrative in which his eccentricities are at the fore. Even if Shea is not the misanthropic nerd he would like his readers to believe, he does well to paint that portrait, because it is fascinating. His girlfriend is a lexicographer—just imagine the pillow talk. You’d need a dictionary.

Shea maintains that his task of reading the whole OED in one year is a pleasure, despite the headaches, worsened eyesight, back spasms and desocialization he incurs along the way. Perhaps it was Shea’s intense hostility towards humanity that put me in the mood to question everything, (or perhaps a few too many critical essays stuffed into my brain) but the English major in me couldn’t shake the overwhelming since of intentionality behind Shea’s portrait of himself. This is a smart man who thinks very carefully about the way he presents himself, not the bumbling bookworm he presents himself as in his book. Evidence that Shea is sneakily constructing an identity for his readers? He self-referentially splits the his infinitive when he asks, “is it finally okay to go ahead and split that damn infinitive?” Okay, so he is not the first author to make this joke, but if you are wondering how consciously Shea is constructing his text, here is an answer. The narrative funhouse element alone makes the book a stimulating read.

The words are pretty choice too. I like bedinner —“to treat to dinner”—in my new career as impoverished young person, I hope to be on the receiving end of this excellent verb often. Also useful is Shea’s inclusion of the 8 different types of “drunke” the OED catalogues. There is lion-drunke, for your angry drunks, ape-drunke, for your crazy drunks, and for the other six, you’ll have to read this eumorphous book.


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