My Competitors, #2: Ammon Shea, Reading the OED: Part 1, We’re Not Dealing With Nabokov Here

Welcome to “My Competitors,” another in our occasional series dealing with books that compete with My Year with Shakespeare, either because they’re about Shakespeare or because they recount some heroic effort to accomplish a quixotic task within a year, particularly one involving Extreme Reading. See previous Competitors here and here. This installment is about Reading the OED by Ammon Shea. I first wrote it in May 2009; I’ve updated it lightly and split it in two, one part about Shea and one about Shakespeare.

Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED claims to be exactly what the title promises—the story of how Shea read the entire Oxford English Dictionary in a year. I would have thought this the least promising entertainment idea since somebody first threatened to read the Manhattan phone directory, but Shea has since favored us with The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book that Everyone Uses but No One Reads, so maybe I’d better shut up. Dictionaries, of course, aren’t meant to be read straight through, so Shea has set himself a mighty challenge. If that challenge was to show the world that the only thing less interesting than reading a dictionary straight through is reading about somebody else reading a dictionary straight through, he has met it brilliantly.

We’re all familiar with the Oxford English Dictionary. You might even own a copy. For many years the Book-of-the-Month Club gave away a two-volume version, eighteen pages squeezed onto one, complete with free magnifying glass, as a premium for joining. It is as close as anything to the dictionary of record for the English language, and its statistics are appropriately outlandish. 59 million words. 21,730 pages. 291,500 entries. Not only does it define more words than any other dictionary, it is compiled on “historical principles,” which means that it uses illustrative quotations to trace the history of the words, of changes in their meaning, and so on. 2,412,400 of them. It isn’t like any ordinary reference book and reading it could not possibly be like reading any other kind of book. Which leads me to ask for a reality check right off. It surprised me that Shea doesn’t harp on these incredible statistics, which would make his accomplishment look that much more extraordinary. How much more? Let’s take that 59 million words. Fifty-nine million divided by 365 is 161,643. That’s how many words Shea had to read every day, without a day off, to read the OED in a year. He says he read for eight to ten hours a day. Say ten. That’s 16,164 words per hour. That sounds like a lot, and it is. Divide it by 60 and you get 269 words per minute. A page in a commercial book is about 500 words, so that’s half a page per minute, ten hours a day, not counting bathroom breaks, or the time you spend, as Shea tells us he does, taking notes with a fountain pen in an old-fashioned ledger book. It would be the equivalent of a 323-page book per day but it would hardly be like reading a John Grisham novel, the comparison Shea suggests. There are no badly drawn characters, no overwrought dialogue, no contrived plot twists to keep the eye moving and the attention engaged. Actually reading a dictionary requires total concentration, and Shea sometimes seems to be afflicted with ADD. Large swathes of the book deal with his quest for the perfect place to read, his addiction to coffee, his headaches, and so on and so forth—anything but the book whose consumption is supposedly taking up at least half his waking hours. We spend a chapter with a mysterious woman who sells dictionaries (20,000 or so of them) by appointment in a suspiciously large “downtown loft.” We follow him to a lexicographers’ convention in Chicago, a trip that must have made a serious dent in his reading time. But for a task that is supposedly time- and statistics-bound, Shea is awfully cavalier. He mentions when he finished but not when he started, so there is no way to know whether he even succeeded in his task. There’s also no sense of urgency as he gets near the end; given his general slackness, did he really not get dangerously behind even once? A narrative with a deadline is pretty much obliged to build up suspense as we come down to the wire; screenwriting teachers are always talking about the “ticking clock”—but Shea generates about as much narrative drive as the OED itself.

Put all that together with the actual content of his book, and it’s clear that Shea didn’t really read the whole OED at all, let alone in a year.

Apart from a brief preface and a brief epilogue it consists of 26 chapters titled—and I know there’s no way you could see this coming—A through Z. The first half of each chapter consists of arch observations about Shea’s life, his alleged task, and the world, and the second half is a bunch of weak jokes about the dozen or so “favorite” words, starting with the letter of the chapter title, he has dredged out of the dictionary. The actual content is shtick that required, at most, trawling through the OED for cutesy words and definitions. I call BS on this project. Or, just to show that I did learn something from this book, if you really credit that he read the whole OED, you’re a gobemouche (“one who believes anything, no matter how absurd”).

In principle, I don’t really mind. In principle, we merely have to distinguish Ammon Shea, the author who wrote what I believe to be a work of fiction marketed as nonfiction, from “Ammon Shea,” the character of the same name who appears in this book. That’s no big deal. We’re not dealing with Nabokov here. We don’t require that “Ammon Shea” do anything real, or even realistic. What we do require is that he be entertaining. And that is the problem with this book: he isn’t. Ammon Shea the character is a tedious little mafflard (a “stuttering or blundering fool,” according to the OED) whose limited repertoire of comic devices rapidly wears out its welcome. For example, he’s addicted to claiming that because we have a word that means X, there must have been a lot of not-X around when it was coined, and what a horrible world that was. Thus “unbepissed” elicits the observation that it must have been a fine kettle of fish when being pissed on was so common we needed a word to express its negation. A little of that goes a long, long way, and by the time we get to “U” there’s been an awful, awful lot of it.

The character Ammon Shea also has weird gaps in his general knowledge. I’ll give just one example, that of “tricoteuse.” Les tricoteuses were those old women who sat under the guillotine as heads rolled during the Reign of Terror. You may not have known the word, but you know what it means, because that image is visual shorthand for the entire French Revolution: there are few more famous images in Western literature than Dickens’s Madame Defarge. Shea’s comment: “What I’ve learned from reading the OED has not been confined to vocabulary. I’ve also learned a good deal about the history of the unpleasantness of the human race, including the portrait of this unsympathetic character, the knitter who attends beheadings.” It’s pretty clear, and pretty sad, what’s going on here. Shea likes the sound of the word—many of his examples seem chosen on this ground alone—and he sees a chance to wedge in a cutesy Life Lesson of the sort that’s de rigeur in a Do Something in a Year Book. These opportunities are few and far between, since his character doesn’t change. So he “learns” something about people’s inhumanity to other people. I’d love to learn that all this is a slyly ironic dig at the character, but despite the hilarious banality of “unpleasantness” and “unsympathetic”—is that really the worst thing he can say?—I repeat, we’re not dealing with Nabokov here. In the context of the whole book, I can only conclude that Shea skipped A Tale of Two Cities in high school. And so did his editor.

I keep coming back to the idea that this book is really a work of fiction through and through, a novel about a dimwit named “Ammon Shea” who, far from being the language maven he fancies himself, is in point of fact a bog standard 21st-century subliterate. That would explain, for example, how a man supposedly so concerned with language he’s reading the OED could write that we have a “needless superfluity” of a certain kind of word—as opposed, no doubt, to the desperately needed superfluities that prevailed in a happier time. But my only evidence for this idea is my uneasy feeling that I’m missing a joke every page or two when I slap my palm to my forehead at a gaffe like this. Otherwise, I see no reason to think that Ammon Shea the author has the chops to pull off such an act of literary ventriloquism. I think we have to take him at face value—as offering a particularly halfhearted version of the humor based on ignorance that’s become the prevailing mode in twenty-first century America, a land where nobody except Stephen Colbert seems to remember how to address us as if we were moderately literate adults. I think this book is exactly what it seems—The Know-It-All Lite.

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