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The only person I know who owns a full set of the Oxford English Dictionary is Ara Taylor, a writer who handles Course Reserves at the Whatcom Community College Library.

When, in 1977, her parents asked her what she wanted for graduation, she said—because of her exposure to the dictionary in an etymology class at the University of Wisconsin—”The OED!”

She got it alright, but instead of the 20-volume set, she received the compact two-volume version, with print so microscopic that a magnifying glass was included. Thirty-two years later she was able to buy what she really wanted: the full set for $25 (!) at a library book sale.

Ammon Shea ordered his volumes because he planned to read the entire 21,730 pages. He describes what happened the day his books came.

My Oxford English Dictionary arrives at 9:27 one Monday morning brought by a deliveryman who is much cheerier than I would have expected anyone carrying 150 pounds of books up a flight of stairs to be.” —Ammon Shea, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 pages

From Shea’s descriptions of the books on page one, I knew that he’d be a whimsical, imaginative reader/writer: “They are all dust-jacketed in dark blue, with a regal and chitinous gloss, resembling the covering of some beautiful and wordy beetle.” What a leap of imagination it takes to liken book covers to the hard shells of insects, or, to quote one of the more poetic lines of the OED directly,”carapaces of crustacea.”

Shea has been reading dictionaries since he was ten years old, and in 2007 he began the ultimate eye-straining, headache-producing, and happiest task of his life. Here’s the last paragraph of Reading the OED:

“I had hoped that within its pages I would find everything I had ever looked for in a novel: joy and sorrow, laughter and frustration, and the excitement and contentment that is unique to great storytelling. The OED exceeded all of these hopes and expectations. It is the greatest story I’ve every read.”

I expected a book based on reading a 20-volume collection of words to be heftier than 223 pages, especially since Ammon said “If you are interested in vocabulary that is both spectacularly useful and beautifully useless, read on, and enjoy the efforts of a man who is in love with words. I have read the OED so that you don’t have to.

I’m glad for the brevity of his volume because it’s unlikely that I’ll learn even the meanings of the words Shea has included. I’ve become acquainted with Jehu, n. A reckless driver; Tardiloquent, adj. Talking slowly; Inspirado, n. A person who thinks himself inspired. Iatrogenic, adj. Pertaining to symptoms caused unintentionally by a doctor; Elozable, adj. Readily influenced by flattery.

Shea’s book is organized alphabetically, with amiable explanatory text introducing and/or interspersed in each section. He can’t resist calling the Introduction an Exordium

OED definition: The beginning of anything; esp. the introductory part of a discourse, treatise, etc.; ‘the proemial part of a composition’ (Johnson).

 and the Bibliography, an Excursus

OED Definition: Latin word is used by editors of the classics to signify: A detailed discussion (usually in the form of an appendix at the end of the book, or of a division of it) of some point which it is desired to treat more fully than can be done in a note.

I love the OED, which is why my wife gave me an online subscription for Christmas, but I’ve never thought of it as a “story.” He’s convinced me. Listen to what these other writers have said:

  • “No really serious writer should be without an OED...Nothing else comes close.”—David Foster Wallace
  • “I’m told that when Auden died, they found his OED all but clawed to pieces. That is the way a poet and his dictionary should go out.”—Frances Steegmuller
  • “All the raw material a writer needs for a lifetime of work.”—Annie Proulx

Walter Isaccson’s idea comes closest to my feeling: “The OED is not only a wonderful tool for a writer, it’s also an inspiration and joy. I feel invigorated whenever I plunge into it.”

In an effort to learn more about Shea, the author whose book I plunged into and from which I found inspiration and joy, I went to the website listed on the book jacket: Keying in that address with or without capitals resulted in access to Ammon Shea, Insurance advisor, an unlikely career transfer for a writer who has supported himself as a furniture mover in New York, a gondolier in San Diego, and a street musician in Paris. Can that really be him?

One thing for sure: I’ll read more books by Ammon Shea.

P.S. I saw a complete set of the 1989 OED at a Half Price Bookstore. I’m tempted. I wish it weren’t twenty times what Ara Taylor paid for hers