Thursday, September 4, 2008

One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages

Over the course of an average day here at the bookstore, I'm reminded of how specified books have become. A survival guide for shopping at Costco? Check. A pictorial of the most preposterous tattoos ever inked? Check! How about guidelines for healing your dog through the ancient art of Reiki? Of course, check. I suppose the lesson to be learned is that there is a book suitable for every inclination, no matter how obscure. Perhaps I should not have been so shocked, then, to have found myself shelving a book that was clearly marketed towards me. Regardless, when I discovered that Ammon Shea had written Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, it was unnervingly like catching someone peering through my bedroom window.

There is something I have always loved about underused academic lingo. I drop the word palimpsest into casual conversation. I've been known to correct people who misuse "blowzy." When a customer once asked me for a book on numismatics, I took undue pleasure in being able to lead him to our section on coin collecting. And while I recognize that there is something undeniably pretentious about such behavior, I have come to accept that it's one of those personality flaws I'll have to live with. I write with a fountain pen, too. A little pretension comes with the territory.

In a childhood attempt to be able to communicate with my obnoxiously educated father, I frequently read the Oxford Pocket Dictionary on the sly. But my dabbling in linguistics is nothing compared to Shea's completion of the full 20 volumes of the OED. Over the course of one year, the man sat down and read each and every entry; a feat he recounts with apparent good humor and self-deprecation. This is a man who risked physical health, sanity, and cohabitational tranquility for a hobby. What concerns me most about the book, however, is that my first response was one of approval, rather than alarm or ridicule. It was a reaction that allowed me to understand that my passing interest in wordplay might someday be more – I was staring down the barrel of my future midlife crisis. Later that day someone sold a Navajo dictionary into the store, and it was only the image of my looming mortgage bill that prevented me from emptying my bank account. It is, I realized, a steep and slippery slope.

I have not yet read Reading the OED, despite the fact that it has received glowing reviews from both the New York Times and the Arizona Republic. It is inevitable that I will, and I'm fairly certain I'll enjoy it. But until I feel that I can safely delve into its pages without yearning to replicate the experiment, perhaps I had better stick to something a little more benign.


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