He read the OED
Perform a strange enough stunt, and you get in the Guinness Book. Perform an odd enough feat, and you can get a book out of it. Thus a New Yorker named Ammon Shea, fueled with innumerable cups of coffee, spent a year reading through the entire Oxford English Dictionary — headwords, pronunciations, etymologies, definitions, illustrative quotations and all. The book, with the kind of straightforward, fact-based tone one would expect from a reader of dictionaries, is Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.*
It is not a book that is particularly strong on plot. As Dr. Johnson said of Richardson’s novels, you would hang yourself if you read for plot. One would read this book for personality.
It turns out that Mr. Shea is a collector and reader of dictionaries. All right. He had a friend, his inspiration, a bookseller who specialized in dictionaries and who had accumulated 20,000 volumes in a New York apartment. All right. Reading close print for several hours a day led to headaches. No surprises there. He did not just read, but also recorded the words he found interesting in a ledger, and a selection of such words runs in each chapter. (I am particularly in his debt for deteriorism, “the attitude that things will usually get worse,” which should probably be emblazoned on any copy editor’s coat of arms.)
His favorite entry: disghibelline, “To distinguish, as a Guelph from a Ghibelline.” Readers of Dante will understand. ** When he speaks of “the enormity of the English language” (in Chapter “N”), I doubt that he has recalled the strictest sense of the word. When he attends a conference of the Dictionary Society of North America, he discovers that among the members, “an alarmingly large number of them wear bow ties.” Heh. And, having finally achieved the feat of reading through the 60,000-word definition of set, he comments, “[D]id I feel a surge of triumph or accomplishment? No, I felt like I was going to vomit. ...”
Having abandoned his apartment for the project (“the people across the hall cook salt cod four days a week”) in favor of a secluded section of the Hunter College library, he wonders whether he is becoming one of the denizens he calls Library People: “”I caught a glimpse of myself as I shuffled out of the library in search of more coffee. I saw a man with hair askew in all directions, an ink-stained shirt partially untucked, and unlaced shoes, who was talking to himself.”
He got to z, at some personal cost (he woke one morning, “and, with mounting horror, realized that I actually knew the differences between Jacobean, Jacobian, Jacobin, and Jacobine”). It was a feat.
* Penguin, 223 pages, $21.95.
** The Guelphs and Ghibellines were rival factions in Florence.