Ammon Shea on Books

Reading any dictionary from cover to cover, let alone the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, is not for the faint of heart, but, as Ammon Shea attests in Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, the feat can be accomplished, and not without delight. In addition to sharing some of his discoveries – from abluvion to zyxt – he reflects on his experience and the love of words and books that underpins it. Here is an excerpt:

“One of the questions I hear most often regarding my plan to read the OED from cover to cover is ‘Why don’t you just read it on the computer?’ I usually respond as if the question was ‘Why don’t you just slump yourself on the couch and watch TV for the year?’ which is not quite an appropriate response. It is not so much that I am anticomputer; I am resolutely and stubbornly pro-book. . . .

“The electronic OED has an impressive arsenal of features, enabling its user to do things that are impossible to do merely by looking through the pages of a book. You can instantly find all the quotations by any cited author. You can find all the instances in which a specific word appears, and what’s more, you can specify whether you want the computer to search for that word in the definitions, the etymologies, or anywhere else. If you misspell a word in the search box a very helpful sidebar lists the words that come before and after the nonexistent one you typed in. . . .

readingtheoed“But what about the things that you cannot do with the electronic version?

“You cannot drop the computer on the floor in a fit of pique, or slam it shut. You cannot leave a bookmark with a note on it in a computer and then come upon it after several years and feel happy you’ve found something you thought you had lost. You cannot get any sort of tactile pleasure from rubbing the pages of a computer. (Maybe some people do get a tactile pleasure from rubbing their computers, but they are not people I have any interest in knowing anything about.)

“Reading on a computer screen gives you no sense of time or investment. The page always looks the same, and everything is always in the same exact spot. When reading a book, no matter how large or small it is, a tension builds, concurrent with your progress through its pages. I get a nervous excitement as I see the number of pages that remain to be read draining inexorably from the right to the left. The fact that this will happen twenty times over as I read the OED does not in any way diminish its appeal.

“I’ve never sat down at a new computer and, prior to using it, felt a deep and abiding need to open it up and sniff it as deeply as I can, the way I have with many a book. To me, computers all smell the same, and their smell is not a nice one. And though a computer will inarguably hold far more information than even the largest of books, sitting down at a computer has never provided me with that delicious anticipatory sense that I am about to be utterly and rhapsodically transported by the words within it.

“I’ve never looked across the room at my computer and fondly remembered things that I once read in it. I can while away hours at a time just standing in front of my books and relive my favorite passages by merely gazing at their spines. I have never walked into a room full of computers, far from home, and immediately felt a warm familiarity come over me, the way I have with every library I’ve ever set foot in.

“This is why I do not care to read the OED on the computer.”