179. The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester
Publication: Oxford University Press (October 2, 2003), Hardcover, 256pp / ISBN 0198607024
Genre: Non-fiction, History
Rating: 4.5 birds
Read: August 2010
Summary from Amazon:
From the best-selling author of The Professor and the Madman, The Map That Changed the World, and Krakatoa comes a truly wonderful celebration of the English language and of its unrivaled treasure house, the Oxford English Dictionary. Writing with marvelous brio, Winchester first serves up a lightning history of the English language–‘so vast, so sprawling, so wonderfully unwieldy’–and pays homage to the great dictionary makers, from ‘the irredeemably famous’ Samuel Johnson to the ‘short, pale, smug and boastful’ schoolmaster from New Hartford, Noah Webster. He then turns his unmatched talent for story-telling to the making of this most venerable of dictionaries. In this fast-paced narrative, the reader will discover lively portraits of such key figures as the brilliant but tubercular first editor Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet), the colorful, boisterous Frederick Furnivall (who left the project in a shambles), and James Augustus Henry Murray, who spent a half-century bringing the project to fruition. Winchester lovingly describes the nuts-and-bolts of dictionary making–how unexpectedly tricky the dictionary entry for marzipan was, or how fraternity turned out so much longer and monkey so much more ancient that anticipated–and how bondmaid was left out completely, its slips found lurking under a pile of books long after the B-volume had gone to press. We visit the ugly corrugated iron structure that Murray grandly dubbed the Scriptorium–the Scrippy or the Shed, as locals called it–and meet some of the legion of volunteers, from Fitzedward Hall, a bitter hermit obsessively devoted to the OED, to W. C. Minor, whose story is one of dangerous madness, ineluctable sadness, and ultimate redemption. The Meaning of Everything is a scintillating account of the creation of the greatest monument ever erected to a living language. Simon Winchester’s supple, vigorous prose illuminates this dauntingly ambitious project–a seventy-year odyssey to create the grandfather of all word-books, the world’s unrivalled uber-dictionary.
I’ve heard some really great things about Simon Winchester’s books but I’ve never actually read them, mostly because I couldn’t decide which to start with. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883? A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906? Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire?! But then I got The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary for a good price around, oh, a year ago– and yeah, it took me a while to get to it but the point is that I DID get to it, and furthermore I really enjoyed it!
I’m much more a fan of pop history/science/etc sorts of book than stodgy, purely academic books; I like to be entertained while learning something new, you know? It’s why I liked Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic Schoolbus so much! And Simon Winchester is very entertaining. The tone of the book is one of fond exasperation, mixed with admiration and pride (Mr Winchester is British), and luckily it never seems to dip into exaggeration or sensationalist areas– a downfall of some pop history books. (Mr Winchester didn’t need to exaggerate because it’s already a pretty fantastic story, but I’m glad he didn’t even try because it would have made me distrust him.) That, mixed with a rather lively writing style and a really interesting story makes The Meaning of Everything one of my favorite nonfiction books.
I don’t really want to ruin anything of the “plot” for you, but let me say that it’s way longer and way more complicated than you’d think it’d be. It’s also a LOT of fun to read about.
Other reviews: I can’t find anyone. Apparently people have read Mr Winchester’s other book about the OED (see below), but not this one– or at least, they haven’t reviewed it.
Sort of related: The Broken Teaglass, which is a mystery set around a lexicographical collections…thingy!
I just remembered that I’ve got a copy of The Professor and the Madman, which is related to this one in that it focuses on one of the main contributors to the OED, Dr. W.C. Minor, who helped from inside the walls of an asylum. Totally going to read it now if I can find it!
Related news story that’s come up in the last few days: OED probably not getting another printing. I can’t say I’m THAT sad, because that’s a huge amount of paper. But I’m sure they’ll figure out a way to do it– surely universities and such will want a copy, and people who really love words. Maybe they could do a pre-order kind of thing and then only print that many copies? Hm.
Also, can anyone recommend me a good pop science book? I’m interested in astronomy and early 20th century science history, but I’ll try anything that sounds good!