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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Reading the OED

Ammon Shea

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To purchase Reading the OED

Title: Reading the OED
Author: Ammon Shea
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2008
Length: 231 pages
Availability: Reading the OED - US
Satisdiction - UK
Reading the OED - Canada
  • US title: Reading the OED
  • UK paperback title: Satisdiction
  • US sub-title: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages
  • UK paperback sub-title: One Man's Journey Into All The Words He'll Ever Need

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good fun, fairly well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/8/2008 Nicholson Baker

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)n oddly inspiring book about reading the whole of the Oxford English Dictionary in one go. (...) 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." - Nicholson Baker, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A book about someone spending a year reading the over twenty-thousand pages of a dictionary does not sound particularly promising -- and the author's statement that: "I think of Reading the OED as the thinking person's Cliff Notes to the greatest dictionary in the world" isn't exactly reassuring. On the other hand, what he proposes to do is fairly extraordinary: surely even fewer people read the Oxford English Dictionary cover(s) to cover(s) (there are twenty volumes in the edition he takes on) than climb Everest. Indeed, it is an audacious feat: yes, spread over a whole year, it averages to just less than sixty pages a day -- but sixty pages of dictionary-entries, day in and day out ? Who could manage that ? (On the other hand: for a fat book contract, who wouldn't give it a shot ?)
       Shea is certainly an appropriate person to undertake such an adventure: he's long been fascinated by dictionaries, has a ridiculously large collection of them, and while not a professional lexicographer does know what he's talking about.
       Aside from a brief introduction ('Exordium', here) and concluding chapter, Reading the OED is presented in twenty-six chapters, each devoted to a letter of the alphabet. Shea begins each chapter with a brief section describing various aspects of his undertaking, writing about everything from his reading-routine to an excursion to the bi-annual conference of the Dictionary Society of North America (where he shows admirable restraint in not: "asking for autographs from several lexicographers whose work I much admire") to various autobiographical disclosures to lexicographic odds and ends; most are fairly entertaining, making for a good sort of running story. Then, in the other half of each chapter, Shea presents: "all the words from the OED that I think people would like to know about, if only they didn't have to read the whole damn dictionary in order to find them", letter by letter (though, in fact, he also strongly encourages readers to go word-hunting for themselves). He gives the word and then one short definition from the OED (as he notes, most words have more than one -- and, for example, the entry for the word 'set' takes up more than twenty-five pages ...), and then adds his own comments, about why the word appeals to him and the like. This sounds like a potential recipe for disaster, but for the most part Shea is up to it -- beginning to win us over by eliciting the first smile already at the second entry:

Accismus - (n.) An insincere refusal of a thing that is desired.
As in: "No, please, I really would like for you to have the last donut."
       This wordplay turns out to be a lot of fun. A few of the words are familiar (we figure we've probably used about five of them at some point in our lives), and quite a few are more or less comprehensible at sight (say, 'misclad'), but Shea generally has something that's at least moderately interesting or witty to say about even those. But the real fun is the words one has never seen or knew of.
       How perfect, for example, is it to learn, after reading Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, that one of the definitions of 'Bayard' is:
A person armed with the self-confidence of ignorance.
       Other favourites include 'anonymuncule' ("an anonymous, small-time writer"), 'parabore' ("a defense against bores"), and 'penultimatum' ("the final demand before an ultimatum")
       Occasionally it's the etymology that's interesting:
Gobemouche - (n.) One who believes anything, no matter how absurd.
From the French words gober (to swallow) + mouche (fly).
       And often it's the observations Shea makes, as about 'lant', meaning: "to add urine to ale, in order to make it stronger", leading him to note that -- as, unfortunately, many other words will also attest to --:
The speakers of English have, over the past several hundred years, displayed what seems to be an unreasoning fondness for using urine, both human and otherwise, for a dizzying array of purposes.
       Or, for example, the definition for 'wine-knight', "A person who drinks valiantly", leads him to ask the obvious: "How exactly does one drink valiantly ?"
       Shea does about as a good a job as one can presumably do of conveying the feeling of immersing oneself so deeply in this massive dictionary -- with some nice observations along the way, like approaching the dreaded multi-volume 'S', wading through the section of Self-Explanatory words (451 pages of 'un-' words, which he found: "only slightly more exciting than reading the phone book"), or reaching 'W' and finding everything slightly off (since W-words are "overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon in origin", while the vast majority of the rest of the words are derived from the Greek and Latin).
       So, somewhat surprisingly for a book that consists in large part of somewhat elaborated-on word-lists, Reading the OED turns out to be a fairly good read, too. It's certainly enjoyable, and recommended for anyone with any word-interest.

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Reading the OED: Reviews: OED: Ammon Shea: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ammon Shea lives in New York.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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