I mentioned this book a few weeks ago, with only mild enthusiasm. The further I got into it, though, the faster I read through it. No, it isn’t as ambitious as A.J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All; Jacobs drew funny and poignant parallels between his reading and some stresses and changes in his life, while Ammon Shea only goes as far as the occasional observational nugget in that vein.
The great pleasure of Shea’s book, however, is its pervasive, unabashed, gloriously valedictory nerdiness. Imagine someone making an exaggerated parody of word lovers. Shea’s actual nerdiness is still deeper than that. In fact, in a contemplative review section at the end, which compared to the pacing in the rest of the book is drawn out not unlike the similarly loving tribute that is the end of the third Lord of the Rings movie, he resists the temptation to brag about the tedious rigor of poring over every word of the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and instead revels in the joy of it, calling it his favorite book, and carefully explaining his plan to read it again right away, savoring each page with the delicate attention of an enraptured lover.
Shea writes a short chapter for each letter of the alphabet, starting with a quick essay on some aspect of the dictionary itself, his love of dictionaries, or the process of reading the OED. Then, he gives a sampling of his favorite words from that section, most all of which are odd, rare, and hilarious. (I was pleasantly surprised to learn that when the word “fizzle” entered the Anglo lexicon in the sixteenth century, it meant “a silent fart.”) Like Jacobs, he splices clever wit into his commentary on each word (as Jacobs did with encyclopedia entries), and comes across as refreshingly engaging. It’s not huis conversational style that makes this reader comfortable, it’s Shea’s confident use of polysyllabic vocabulary, as well as his casually deft array of complex grammatical constructions. He sure doesn’t talk down to you, that’s for sure.
Add to all that just a wee smattering of misanthropy. This, I said to myself more than once as I read, is a guy I can relate to. We may not have much in common (although I can’t help but wonder if his first name implies what I think it does), but we have a solid brotherhood of logophilia. I briefly wondered if I should offer to buy him lunch sometime so I can gush about his work and bounce some hopefully-erudite ideas off of him, but I quickly remembered the (in)famous meeting of James Joyce and Marcel Proust which, no matter which account you believe, fizzled. In every sense of the word. So maybe lunch would be anticlimactic.