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Book review: Reading the OED

Reading the OED by Ammon Shea is a quirky non-fiction book that had on impact on me much greater than I anticipated. The book outlines Shea's year long project of reading the entirety of the Oxford English Dictionary and the results and findings therewith.

As expected, he unearths and catalogs many interesting and obscure words, and if you're a fan of such things you'll find plenty to like about this book. Several stood out for me, including "zyxt," an archaic form of to see, and "Petrichor," the loamy smell of newly fallen rain.

But what I enjoyed the most, perhaps not surprisingly given my fondness for ethnography, was Shea's description of the process and experience of devoting a year of 10 hour days to reading over 21,000 pages. Learning about the physical and mental changes he underwent, as well as his quest for the best place to hunker, and his constant battles against tedium and distraction, were all fascinating for me.

By the end, I had found inspiration for my own project of a similar bent. I turned to my bookshelf and found a reprint collection of a notable newsletter for conjurers from nearly 70 years ago. It's held in high esteem, but most people treat it as a reference instead of reading it in its entirety. I decided to read all the issues, over the course of the next year, and so far it has been a delightful project. However, I must admit, I enlisted three trusted and creative friends to help me, so it's more of a social project than an individual obsession, but one that I nonetheless owe to Reading the OED.


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