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One Man, One Year, One Mission: Read The OED

Many avid readers know the sense of sadness that can come along with the end of a book. For Ammon Shea, that feeling led him to an idea. Why not read one of the longest books out there, The Oxford English Dictionary?

"I figured if I was reading a book that was almost 22,000 pages long, that that feeling would take significantly longer to come around," Shea told Renee Montagne.

And Shea was right about that — it took him a full year to read the dictionary. He has since written a book of his own about the experience, called Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.

"I have to say, it was absolutely delightful," Shea said. "It was such a moving experience. It felt so similar to reading a great work of literature."

As Shea wrote in Reading the OED, "All of the human emotions and experiences are right there in this dictionary, just as they would be in any fine work of literature. They just happen to be alphabetized."

Part of that appreciation, Shea said, came when words seemed to arrange themselves into strings of poetry or prose.

But Shea says that what also made the reading enjoyable for him was the chance to unearth "wonderful words that are kind of hidden in the depths of the English vocabulary that we don't come across."

And once he has learned about a new word, Shea said, he finds himself thinking about the concept it describes more often.

An example, he says, is "petrichor," a word for the scent that rises from pavement after rain has begun to fall.

"It's a beautiful smell," Shea said. "I've always loved that smell, when it first starts raining."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that Shea is always going around throwing out esoteric words, he said.

"Now, I don't talk about that word so much, but I do think about it when I come across that particular kind of gentle smell wafting off the ground," Shea said.

Shea said that one of the biggest stumbling blocks in reading the complete dictionary came when he reached the section that began with the letters "un."

The dictionary, Shea said, contains "about 450 pages of entries that begin with 'un.'" And they often lack a definition, as the word is meant to explain itself. He soldiered on through the "terribly boring sections," which were brightened occasionally by finding a word like "unlove" — the action of ceasing to love someone.

"I love the tactile sensation of turning one page to the next and feeling my fingers across them. I love having the weight of the book in my lap; I like the way that books smell — that's a huge part of it."

Asked about the moment that he finished the dictionary, Shea said, "I had a brief feeling of euphoria. I danced a brief jig in the library basement."

But it didn't last long, he said.

"Shortly thereafter, I realized I had to go back and read the bibliography."

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