Monday, August 4, 2008

And Then There's OBSESSION

And I thought I was obsessive. I enjoyed this book review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review about a man who decided to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary. Yes, the entire thing—the 20-volume version with the tiny print (only slightly less tiny than the shrunk-down 2 volume version that came with its own magnifying glass).

Sounds like quite the fun project:

“[Author Ammon] 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.”

Nicholson Baker, the reviewer, seemed a good match for this book: anyone who’s ever read his 133-page novel The Mezzanine, about ten (or is it five?) minutes in the life of an office worker riding the escalator (complete with footnotes) would suspect a similar level of obsessive tendencies. (Naturally I loved The Mezzanine!)

Anyway, the book is called Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea. It’s only 223 pages long.

Slightly related fun fact: during college, my favorite section of the library for studying was the area that shelved the Asian books collection. Like Shea, I had to place myself out of temptation.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.