August 3, 2008
From A to Zyxt
By NICHOLSON BAKER
READING THE OED
One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.
By Ammon Shea.
223 pp. Perigee. $21.95.
Ammon Shea, a sometime furniture mover, gondolier and word collector, has written an oddly inspiring book about reading the whole of the Oxford English Dictionary in one go. Shea’s book resurrects many lost, misshapen, beautifully unlucky words — words that spiraled out, like fast-decaying muons, after their tiny moment in the cloud chamber of English usage. There’s hypergelast (a person who won’t stop laughing), lant (to add urine to ale to give it more kick), obmutescence (willful speechlessness) and ploiter (to work to little purpose) — all good words to have on the tip of your tongue when, for example, you’re stopped for speeding.
Shea’s book offers more than exotic word lists, though. It also has a plot. “I feel as though I am eating the alphabet,” he writes halfway through, and you want him to make it to the end. This is the “Super Size Me” of lexicography.
Shea is well equipped for the task he has set himself. He owns about a thousand dictionaries, which he keeps on shelves in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Alix, who teaches psychology courses at Barnard. Some of the dictionaries he bought from a book dealer named Madeline, who lives in a loft in Lower Manhattan. Madeline owns 20,000 dictionaries. She taught Shea, he says, “the ineffable joy that can be had in pursuing the absurd.”
Back in the ’90s, Shea read Webster’s Second from beginning to end — no easy feat. Did doing so help him in any way? No. It didn’t make him a better or smarter person, or improve his test scores. In fact, it seems to have hindered his capacity for self-expression. “My head was so full of words that I often had trouble forming simple sentences out loud,” he writes, “and my speech became a curious jumble of obscure words and improper syntax.” But Shea seems to have loved this experience of verbal overspill — he underwent the prolonged brain-shiver that comes when thousands of unfamiliar meanings pour in without stopping. “It felt wonderful,” he says.
The logical next step was to read the O.E.D., but here Shea hesitated. The O.E.D. is huge, as everyone knows. It’s monstrously deep and serious and maddeningly detailed, each entry a miniature etymological seminar. It’s the one that, in one incarnation, came with a rectangular magnifying glass; the one that the polymathic Simon Winchester wrote about in “The Professor and the Madman.” Could Shea really make his witting way through 20 heavy volumes of tri-columnated type, all of it twinkling and squirming with abbreviations, small caps, foreign derivations and archaic spellings? Could one man read, in one year’s time, 59 million consecutive words — the equivalent of one John Grisham novel per day — of definitional “prose”? Or would Shea fail and be forever known as the guy who read through to the letter N and couldn’t go on?
Shea decided to make the attempt and to record his progress in this book. Each letter gets its own chapter. In Chapter A the volumes arrive, wrapped in the “regal and chitinous gloss” of their dust jackets. Shea sits near the window, his feet up on an ottoman, and begins to read. Difficulties ensue. He gets pulsing headaches and sees gray patches on the edges of his vision. His back bothers him. His neighbors make salt cod, and the odor is distracting. He’s tempted to look things up in his other dictionaries, comparing definitions, which slows his progress.
So he ventures out into the city, reading on park benches and in public libraries. No place is right. Finally he settles on a location in the basement of the Hunter College library, among books in French that don’t tempt him away from the task at hand. He drinks many thermosfuls of coffee. He gets eyeglasses and finds, much to his surprise, that they help him see better. His headaches continue.
And the lovely-ugly words, words that Shea didn’t know existed, leap up to his hand. Acnestis — the part of an animal’s back that the animal can’t reach to scratch. And bespawl — to splatter with saliva. In Chapter D, Shea encounters deipnophobia, the fear of dinner parties; Chapter K brings kankedort, an awkward situation.
Months in, Shea arrives — back-aching, crabby, page-blind — at Chapter N. “Some days I feel as if I do not actually speak the English language,” he writes, his verbal cortex overflowing. “It is,” he observes, “like trying to remember all the trees one sees through the window of a train.” Once he stares for a while, amazed, at the word glove. “I find myself wondering why I’ve never seen this odd term that describes such a common article of clothing.”
By Chapter O there is evidence of further disintegration. Is he turning into, he wonders, one of the “Library People”? The bag-toters and mutterers who spend all their time there? “Sometimes I get angry at the dictionary and let loose with a muffled yell.” At night he hears a deep, disembodied voice slowly intoning definitions.
But then, thank goodness, he breaks through into sunlight. In Chapter P he finds a rich harvest of words, including one, petrichor, that refers to the loamy smell that rises from the dry ground after a rain, and a nicely dense indivisible word, prend, that refers to a mended crack. He notes these down in his big ledger book. He attends a lexicographical congress in Chicago, where he is misunderstood by his colleagues, and returns to the Hunter library basement with renewed vigor. He tells his tolerant girlfriend about a rare P-word and then wonders aloud if he is boring her. “The point at which I became bored has long since passed,” Alix replies.
Shea arrives at another bad patch partway through Chapter U, with the “un-” section — more than 400 pages of words of self-evident meaning. “I am near catatonic,” he writes, “bored out of my mind.” But he doesn’t skip; he is lashed to the tiller, unthimbled and unthrashed.
Théophile Gautier read the dictionary to enrich and exoticize his poetry. Walter Pater read the dictionary to keep his prose pure and marmoreal — to learn what words to avoid. Shea has no interest in purity or poetry. His style is simple. He just wants to identify and savor, for their own sweet sakes, malocclusive Greek and Latin hybrids that are difficult to figure out how to pronounce. He is fond of polysyllabic near-homonyms — words like incompetible (outside the range of competency) and repertitious (found accidentally), which are quickly swallowed up in the sonic gravitation of familiar words. And a number of Shea’s finds deserve prompt resurrection: vicambulist, for instance — a person who wanders city streets.
The effect of this book on me was to make me like Ammon Shea and, briefly, to hate English. What a choking, God-awful mash it is! Surely French is better. Then I recovered and saw its greatness afresh. The O.E.D., Shea notes, is “a catalog of the foibles of the human condition.” 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’s most recent book is “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.”
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