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85 of 89 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The Letter 'I' Tastes Like It Is Full Of Capers, And I Hate Capers."
The concept of reading the OED cover to cover simply boggles the mind, but Ammon Shea is a unique person: a man so devoted to dictionaries that 21 of the 25 boxes of belongings he brought with him when moving into his latest apartment were full of them. Shea shares with the reader insights both personal and linguistically entertaining throughout the book, and discusses...
Published on August 30, 2008 by Robert I. Hedges

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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A logophile's bauble
It seems churlish to disagree with so many other readers--as well as a glowing review by Nicholson Baker in the New York Times--but I found this short book as much annoying as amusing. The problem for me is that Shea knows a lot about dictionaries, but he's not deeply read in philosophy, religion, or (especially) history, and that deficiency shows in the shallowness of...
Published on October 9, 2010 by Anson Cassel Mills


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85 of 89 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The Letter 'I' Tastes Like It Is Full Of Capers, And I Hate Capers.", August 30, 2008
The concept of reading the OED cover to cover simply boggles the mind, but Ammon Shea is a unique person: a man so devoted to dictionaries that 21 of the 25 boxes of belongings he brought with him when moving into his latest apartment were full of them. Shea shares with the reader insights both personal and linguistically entertaining throughout the book, and discusses many of his favorite words from the OED.

Some of my favorite words discussed in "Reading the OED" follow.

"Advesperate" means "to approach evening." I join Shea in hoping I never have the need to exclaim "Let's hurry! It's advesperating!"

"Natiform" means "buttock-shaped." I do not know when I will need this word, but I have filed it mentally under the heading "potentially useful."

"Nastify" means "to render nasty." This is a word that has obvious and numerous uses in discussing contemporary culture.

"Peristeronic" means "suggestive of pigeons," and may be my favorite word in the book inasmuch as I cannot imagine a single time I will ever need this word.

"Tricoteuse" is an even less useful word than peristeronic, in that it means "a woman who knits; specifically, a woman who during the French Revolution would attend the guillotinings and knit while the heads were rolling." Now that's cold.

I was also pleased to discover that "chalcenterous" means "having bowels made of bronze," or alternately, "tough." This is a word that I simply must remember and use at every reasonable opportunity.

Shea is clearly a lover of language, and holds lexicographers and linguists in high regard, but he writes for those of us with smaller vocabularies in an amusing and simultaneously educational manner that is never patronizing. Perhaps the best example of this is the discussion on p. 168 where he discusses the difference in technical words with precise definitions (e.g., "pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis," a rare lung disease), and the difficulty of defining small, common words, his favorite example of which is "set." The definition of "set" in the OED takes 25 pages, and covers 155 main senses of the word, some of which have up to 70 subsenses. These are truths that are obvious to lexicographers, but are uncommonly recognized outside of professional word-defining circles. These are also the underlying points that make this book so entertaining and worthwhile.

For anyone who loves to read or loves words, this is an absolute necessity. While I doubt I'll ever read the OED, I'm glad that someone has and has written such a clever book about the experience.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "One would have to be mad to seriously consider such an undertaking.", August 24, 2008
Ammon Shea's "Reading the OED" is a paean to the English language, with all of its "glories and foibles, the grand concepts and whimsical conceits that make our language what it is." Shea readily admits that "adding a great number of obscure words to your vocabulary will not help you advance in the world." Although he has been reading dictionaries for a decade in between jobs as a furniture mover in New York City, Shea had never attempted to read the Mt. Everest of dictionaries, the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, with its twenty-one thousand seven hundred and thirty pages and approximately fifty-nine million words. When he made up his mind to tackle this daunting task, he did it with great anticipation and not a little dread. However, he need not have worried that he would come to regret his folly. Not only is the OED an enormously scholarly work, says Shea, but it is also "entertaining and wonderfully engaging." In "Reading the OED," Shea gives us a taste of what it is like to undertake such a monumental project and introduces us to words that are both "spectacularly useful and beautifully useless."

Shea divides his book into twenty-six chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. Every chapter begins with either a riff on the history of dictionaries or a description of the author's feelings and experiences during his year with the OED. For each letter, Shea offers a list of words culled from the OED that are sometimes silly, often unpronounceable, but usually engaging and out of the ordinary. He does not merely define words such as "advesperate," "onomatomania," and "latibulatek," but he also provides comical commentary that will make readers grin and, at times, laugh out loud. Shea is an amusing first person narrator who enjoys poking fun at himself as much as he loves finding remarkable words. He fuels himself with gallons of coffee and closets himself in a library's basement in order to accomplish what some might consider a dubious feat. Shea spends eight to ten hours daily at his "job," and before long, he begins to suffer from eyestrain, pounding headaches, back pain and occasionally, crushing boredom. However, the rewards make it all worthwhile. He is pleasantly surprised at the OED's ability to evoke happiness, sadness, surprise, wistfulness, and chagrin. "All of the human emotions and experiences are there in this dictionary," he insists. "They just happen to be alphabetized." Logophiles (word-lovers) will revel in this breezy, informative, and compulsively readable book.
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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Book to be Savored, July 15, 2008
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Words still matter. I'm taking it slowly so that I can spend time with Mr. Shea's selections from the OED. Here's a word that is worth the price of the book: "Acnestis (n.) On an animal, the point of the back that lies between the shoulders and the lower back, which cannot be reached to be scratched." I've known the concept existed from my cats' reaction when I give them a scratch there. Mr. Shea and the OED have provided the word. A great read and that includes his entertaining description of the effort required to actually *read the OED*. Ammon Shea *read* the OED (bears repeating); we're the beneficiaries.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read, July 23, 2008
Highly recommended! Ammon Shea paints a picture of himself as an obsessed, voracious, and enamored reader, but he also comes across as modest, loving, and introspective. His weird need to read and read and read transforms him into a true lover of the deep work of art that the OED seems to be (how should I know? I never read it! But I take his word). No one can know words like he does, but he lets us in on his love, and by the time we're done we deeply admire and appreciate both the OED and Mr Shea himself.

This book reminds me of Henry Miller's "The Books in My Life" (but it's more like "The BOOK in My Life"): passionate, biographical, an ode to literature and the quirky, loving individual...
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Walk (Through the Dictionary) Not Spoiled!, October 5, 2008
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Shea produces here a very entertaining and enlightening glance at both a dictionary that is so large that many homes don't have a shelf that can hold it all as well as a glimpse into the madness of someone crazy enough to want to read such a book. Sure, you'll learn a few new words and laugh at a lot of words that you didn't know existed, but at the same time you see the workings of a human being who's excited by an activity which many would consider the definition of "boring". The author injects the dictionary with personality and intrigue, and it makes for a very good, quick read. Absolutely worth your time.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A logophile's bauble, October 9, 2010
By 
Anson Cassel Mills (Lake Santeetlah, NC) - See all my reviews
It seems churlish to disagree with so many other readers--as well as a glowing review by Nicholson Baker in the New York Times--but I found this short book as much annoying as amusing. The problem for me is that Shea knows a lot about dictionaries, but he's not deeply read in philosophy, religion, or (especially) history, and that deficiency shows in the shallowness of his writing.

The original name of the OED was "New English Dictionary on Historical Principles," and to ignore etymology, as Shea does deliberately on almost every page, means his comments on odd words dredged from the dictionary are often either variants of "Wow, isn't that odd" or weak attempts at humor. Occasionally he can be clever (as, for instance, at "enantiodromia"), but just as often there's either a leer at some word we might have looked up at age ten had we known it existed or a tut-tut at an OED definition he considers prudish.

Furthermore, this book is as much about the author reading the OED as it is about the OED itself, and although Baker finds this autobiographical excursion amusing, I was bored by the accumulated self-reference. Judging by other readers' reactions, it's likely I'm the odd man out here. You may be charmed by Shay's discussions of his backaches, glasses, and live-in girl friend. Personally, I find more than enough of that sort of thing at Facebook.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Word Lovers Only, November 27, 2009
By 
Celia L. Tippit (Astoria, OR, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (Paperback)
I purchased this book with the intoxicating title for a friend. Thankfully, before I wrapped it, I perused it and then just sat down and read and became infatuated with the concept, the delivery, and with the mirth I experienced. So I purchased an additional three books, keeping one for myself, and the other two for my daughters. If you like words, not just for what they convey, but for their revelations of the intricacies of the English language and for the amazing breadth of meanings and innuendos, this book is for you. If you like sitting with a book in one hand and a paper and pencil at the ready, this book is for you. If you have friends or relatives who will put up with your trying out obtuse and long-dead words on them, this is for you.

The introductions to all the chapters are fascinating and telling "essays" of their own. Under R you will be introduced to the esoteric world of lexicographers. Chapter E contains an overview of dictionaries.... In the meantime you are amassing a precious list of words that you intend to work into your writing, if not your daily speech. (When you use the "dead" word within your writing, you can asterisk it and give an explanation at the bottom of your letter.)

Shea has provided us with a tantalizing journey. Wonderful, and jocoserious.

Celia L. Tippit
Astoria, OR
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Good Book about a Great Book, August 29, 2008
The English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote 400 years ago, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention." Serious novels and nonfiction works must fall into that "read wholly, and with diligence and attention" part. Dictionaries surely fall into the "read only in parts" category. But no one has told Ammon Shea this. Shea is, among other things, a furniture mover in New York City, but he has a lifetime of being enthralled with dictionaries, and his home is bursting with his collection of them. He isn't a lexicographer (but his girlfriend used to be); he doesn't write dictionaries, he reads them. Ten years ago, he read his first dictionary, the _Webster's New International_, with the result that "My head was so full of words that I often had trouble forming simple sentences out loud, and my speech became a curious jumble of obscure words and improper syntax. It felt wonderful, so I went out and bought the sequel, _Webster's Third New International_." The Everest of dictionary reading would have to be reading the whole Oxford English Dictionary, and Shea has done just that, reporting on the experience in _Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages_ (Perigee). If you are one of the normal people who uses dictionaries like normal people do, this does not sound like it is going to be very interesting, even if it does sound more interesting than actually reading the _OED_ for yourself.

Surprise! With Shea as a guide, this is a fun journey, and as he has said, now he has read the entire _OED_, you don't have to. "The book in your hands," he says, "contains 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." Shea's book consists of an introduction and a conclusion, and between them are twenty-six chapters, each devoted to findings within a letter's listing in the _OED_. Each chapter has a short essay, perhaps not associated with that particular letter, in which Shea tells us about the mechanics of his monumental task, the headaches it gives him, the coffee he powers himself with, the other dictionary enthusiasts he has met, his love of interacting with the physical book rather than just researching the electronic _OED_ (a version he admires for other reasons), and his feelings of joy over finding extraordinary words. His selection of words is indeed delightful, and though he is no Ambrose Bierce, he has tinged his comments on them with wit and a little judicious misanthropy. It is useless to try summarize the book's main contents, which are the words and definitions which Shea wants us to think about, and his comments upon them. Here is just one example of a curious word: Acnestis: on an animal, the point on the back that lies between the shoulders and the lower back, which cannot be reached to be scratched. "I am very glad," he writes, "I found this word early in my reading of the _OED_ - the fact that there existed a word for this thing which previously I had been sure lacked a name was such a delight to me that suddenly the whole idea of reading the dictionary seemed utterly reasonable."

Coming to the end of this book, a reader can enjoy Shea's pleasure at coming to the end of his quest. He has not enjoyed every minute or every page, but he writes lyrically about his enjoyment of the task overall. He explains that the _OED_ is the perfect book for "three a.m. moments", and remarks, "And so three a.m. becomes six, night becomes morning, one cup of coffee becomes four, and the pile of pages shifts from the right to the left as I read my way into the day. In moments like this I am convinced I'll never need another book again." It was, he says, "the most engrossing and enjoyable book I've ever read." The big problem is what to read next? Why, the _OED_ again, only this time he won't push himself to get it done in a year, and without a deadline, he may start at A but he'll let himself get distracted and investigate anything else his reading turns up. Even if you have no intention to imitate Shea, it is a pleasure to read this joyful account of his full absorption in this idiosyncratic task, which might be goofy but is also quietly admirable.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars in love with words and books, July 31, 2008
Ammon Shea's passion for words is contagious. He read the entire Oxford English Dictionary over the course of a year. His caffeine-fueled loquacity about the beauty of words and books is an inspiration. People asked him; why don't you read it on a computer? Shea takes that question as an opportunity to leap on to his soapbox and proclaim the matchless delights of actually turning the pages of real books. Their scent. The magic therein. Larry McMurtry expresses a comparable exultation for the pleasures of genuine tomes in his recent memoir BOOKS. Shea won't be buying the Amazon Kindle any time soon...

Shea's lists of word favorites are made even more delectable by the witticisms invoked by each one. We sense the monstrous task that he has accomplished when he takes us through the OED's letter "S" and the OED's definitions of the word "SET."

So what does one do after finishing such a gargantuan feat? For Shea, the answer is an easy one; read the OED all over again. More slowly. Savoring every juicy morsel therein.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A smooth read. Interested in unusual words? Try this one out!, August 2, 2008
The fact that the author was able to read the entire OED (twenty volumes of it) deserves respect. I had the same dream of reading through any dictionary since my highschool years, but doubted that anyone would dare accomplish that. Maybe English being my second language was a deterrent, but since I haven't read any Korean dictionary in full, it's truly commendable. This book is an extremely smooth read, and anybody who has learned Latin (or Greek) and has some knowledge of how to comprehend the etymology entries in the Oxford Dictionaries (for example, Mac OSX comes with the New Oxford American Dictionary, so about 10% of the population can check them out) can have a blast, albeit a short one. Modern English being a mumbo-jumbo as it is, it is all the more fascinating for that fact. Love your language, and show it the affection you have.
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Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages
Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea (Paperback - May 5, 2009)
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