Monday, August 2, 2010

Book Review: Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

Reading the OED : One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea, William Dufris (Narrator) (unabridged)

Normally I love memoirs of someone doing something nutty for a year. But sadly, this one didn't live up to my expectations. I actually have a friend who owns the OED. I was with him when he bought it at The Strand in New York (it came with a magnifying glass). I love weird words, the stories behind them, and so I thought this book would be perfect. And it wasn't.

I think it might have been improved in print. There are 26 chapters, one for each letter, and at the end of each chapter there's a list of words with definitions and Mr. Shea's opinions about them. Those were difficult on audio. Not only could you not skim through them as most people reading the print version would have done, but also if one was interesting, you'd have to rewind to figure out what the word was, and that certainly never happened, so the point of those lists was lost on audio (although I give props to the narrator as those must have been supremely difficult parts for him to read.)

Also something I usually like about these books is that it's a fairly ordinary, identifiable person who's doing the nutty thing. But Mr. Ammon is a collector of dictionaries who reads them for fun. This project, while long, really isn't a stretch for him at all. And he's a bit odd. He even goes to a dictionary convention and all the people there found his project very weird. And while we do hear a lot about him looking for the right library, his headaches and glasses, how difficult it is to read the OED outside, we really almost never hear anything about his daily, everyday life. I really didn't feel like I got to know him at all which is strange for a memoir. That was one of my favorite parts of The Know-It-All for instance: when the author's wife starts fining him for every useless fact he drops in everyday conversation. So while it's well-written and very well-narrated, I think one would have to already have an abiding love of dictionaries to truly love this book.

This book is a part of the Audiosynced roundup of audio book reviews at Stacked. She'll have a post September 1 with the full list.


Suzanne said...

What a shame -- this looked like an interesting book.
Have you read The Professor and the Madman? It's about the creation of the first OED.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Oh, too bad! I always hate it when I'm reading a book that I was so excited to read and then it falls flat. It kind of makes me motivated to continue reading each page because I keep thinking that a book premise such as this can't be this bad!

Carin Siegfried said...

Suzanne, yes I LOVED The Professor and the Madman and was hoping this would be more of the same.

Coffee, I was listening to it on audio, so it wasn't too difficult to get through it. What was hard was all the podcasts I also have on my iPod. My finger was just itching to turn on Car Talk or Wait Wait Don't Tell Me instead. But I don't load more than one audiobook on my iPod at a time.

Cath said...

Oh man! I wish wish wish this had been better. But thanks for warning me off--I wouldn't want to waste time or money if its not worth it.