reading the oed (ammon shea) love

reading the oed (ammon shea)


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  • Some random guy named John McGrath interviewed Ammon Shea here

    March 31, 2009

  • I read this book last week, sionnach, and I was rather disappointed. Ammon Shea proved to be a curmudgeon who emphasized words with negative connotations. Many of them were interesting, but only a few were delightful.

    March 30, 2009

  • Ammon Shea read the OED "so that you don't have to". This account of the experience has one chapter for each letter of the alphabet; each chapter is roughly equally split between a selection of words and definitions and Shea's musing on some aspect of dictionaries, lexicography, or the logistics of his current project, many of which have to do with finding good places to do his reading.

    I enjoyed the book, but not nearly as much as I had expected to. Shea is a genial guide, and one admires his stamina and enthusiasm. But ultimately the gimmick is a little flimsy to support an entire book. Ammon's random musings are fascinating, quirkily charming, or dull in roughly equal measure. His writing isn't bad, though it is a little clunky at times, and there are surprising lapses into imprecision:

    "One of the things that has been painfully apparent as I read through the enormity of the English language is just how little of it I know."

    Use of the skunked term 'enormity' distracts the reader unnecessarily here; and even if one allows the meaning of 'great size' or 'hugeness', the construction remains clumsy.

    In another passage, he refers to the tribe of library denizens (people who spend their days in the New York Public Library reading room) as 'elusive', having told us a paragraph earlier that one of their defining characteristics is their tendency to occupy the same seats, day in, day out.

    However, it seems unfair to come down on him too harshly for this. Each of us has surely had the experience of staring at a word on the page for too long, until it starts to look really bizarre, just a weird concatenation of random-looking syllables. Or just repeat any word out loud ten times -- by the time you're done it will seem like gibberish. Reading the OED could be enough to unhinge one altogether.

    Ammon Shea deserves our admiration for having made it through intact. In this account of the journey he has not been completely successful in overcoming a fundamental difficulty, which is that the pleasures of the dictionary are generally private, idiosyncratic, and personal. So that it's hard to banish the thought that, rather than read his book, it might be more fun to use the time to browse the dictionary itself.

    March 30, 2009

  • goodreads review

    February 3, 2009