Sunday, August 03, 2008

Beetling o'er the base of the lexicographical cliff

Ammon Shea, just, you know, checking. Image found here.

This is one of those things that, when you've learned someone else has done it, you're glad s/he's written about it. . . and relieved so you can set aside that same impulse in yourself as having already been done and, like, Whew!:

From Nicholson Baker's review of Ammon Shea's Reading the OED:

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.
(Hat-tip: 3 Quarks Daily)


Camille said...

Maybe you know this, but I just got married, and the other day I was shocked to find that my husband sleeps not with one dictionary, but six (including three inexplicably in Portuguese). I am not sure if I should find it endearing or a little terrifying.

John B. said...

I knew about the just-getting-married part (congratulation, by the way), but you'd not made your readers privy to your husband's sleeping arrangements.

True bibliophiles love dictionaries. I mean, they love them. But let's hope they don't cause too much strife in the household.

Kári said...

Fabulous; this is clearly the book everyone's getting for Christmas this year. Mr. Shea may not be looking for purity or poetry, but it seems Mr. Baker may have found it through reading this book. That, at least, was the impression I got, particularly from the last sentence which is quite beautiful and strangely thrilling.

John B. said...

That's what I thought, too, as I read the review--it was really hard to choose a point to stop quoting it.

Thanks for dropping by.