“This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel…”
– Horace Walpole
Depending on your view of the glass being half full or half empty, the Oxford English Dictionary could be either the funniest or saddest collection of words in existence. I suppose it depends on the order in which you read it. Having not read the entire work myself, I can’t say for certain, but I stumbled upon a book some time ago that has convinced me it’s quite the comical thing.
“Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages” is Ammon Shea’s recounted adventure of reading the OED from cover to cover—all 150 pounds and twenty volumes of it. It’s remarkable. It’s death-defying. And, most importantly, it’s hilarious.
Shea’s book is divided into 26 chapters, A-Z, each chapter beginning with a description of his current emotional and physical state during the mammoth undertaking, followed by short commentaries on a handful of words beginning with the chapter’s alphabet letter. If you read the book in alphabetical order (which you don’t necessarily need to do), you’ll follow along with his descent from exuberance into just a little madness, eye strain, backache, and his eventual return to pleasure upon reaching the final pages.
As one could expect, the experience became completely surreal at times, with words and sanity losing context in the real world—somewhat like watching any more than five episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in a row.
Shea’s book is such a fun read, and his short asides on words often made me laugh out loud, which created some interesting complications when reading excerpts to friends. The peculiarities he chose to share are delightful and odd and enlightening. There are words we use today that we would never think to connect with their origins. And there are those I simply fell in love with, even though I can’t bring myself to use them casually in conversation. It’s where I fell in love with “epizeuksis,” and how I found out that “petrichor” describes the smell of rain on the ground.
True, Shea’s is an abridged adventure through the OED, but it’s a fantastic one, and it will do for now. Some things can get away with being abridged. Others cannot. More on that later.