26 February 2009

Books as Tickets to Adventure

Ammon Shea's Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages is a collection of twenty-six linked personal essays about reading the Oxford English Dictionary straight through, or about dictionaries and reading in general. Each lettered chapter is followed by a series of unusual words beginning with that letter, words which Shea finds pleasing for one reason or another.

Shea's comments on those words make me think he's trying to do David Sedaris, though he never achieves those heights. And so far Reading the OED hasn't transcended the description above. It hasn't turned out to contain hidden depths, as Alexander Frater's Chasing the Monsoon or Joe Kane's Running the Amazon did, to choose two participial equivalents.

But if you like reading and words, Reading the OED is quite pleasant entertainment. Along the way Shea shares this childhood memory:

I bought my first book for myself when I was ten. Stuck at a beach somewhere near the end of Cape Cod one summer, and eventually bored by the normal pursuits of summer, I happened into the clapboard shack by the parking lot that served as a combination of hot dog stand and purveyor of cheap souvenirs, In the back of the store was a shaky wire carousel full of aged paperbacks. They weren't secondhand, just books from twenty years earlier that had never managed to be sold, and the store was letting them go for their original cover prices, twenty-five cents each.

At that age I thought anything that cost a quarter must be a bargain, and I grabbed the first book that caught my eye--Three Tickets to Adventure by Gerald Durrell. It was a memoir of sorts, recounting the trials and travails of being an animal collector for zoos in the 1950s.

It was instantly the most transporting experience I could imagine. I had been an avid reader, prone to spending more time while at school in the library than in the classroom, but this was somehow different. Here, fully realized, was the idea that one could just go and find a book that one wanted to read, buy it, and get joyfully and irretrievably lost in its pages. . . .

At some point my parents became concerned with the amount of time I spent reading. When I was twelve my father began kicking me out of the house on weekends so that I wouldn't lie on the couch all day with my nose in a book.

All this accomplished was to give me the impetus to go out and find new volumes to read. I would walk several miles downtown, to Fifty-fifth Street and Fifth Avenue, where Doubleday had its flagship store [1961-1997]. I was more than content to perch on an uncomfortable stool reading all day and then walk home, pretending that I'd been out and about and performing energetic childhood activities for hours.

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