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The stunt book–wherein our author undertakes an activity of dubious or dangerous oddity and emerges, huzzah, with an inspiring tale of unlikely trancendence–has its risks. It is one thing to read about an average Joe’s sixty seconds in professional sports, but perhaps another to experience the drama of an average Jane’s year without shopping. The most interesting (to me, of course) of the recent stunt books is surely Ammon Shea‘s latest, Reading the OED, a book that put me in the mind of my favorite stunt book, Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). Whereas Shea’s is the story of his sitting down to read through the 21,730 pages of the twenty volumes of the 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in one year, Webster’s was the tale (embodied) of his sitting down and, over the course of twenty-seven years, writing the last English dictionary composed by a single individual.
Consider NW’s definition of “politics”:
The science of government; that part of ethics which consists in the regulation and government of a nation or state, for the preservation of its safety, peace, and prosperity; comprehending the defense of its existence and rights against foreign control or conquest, the augmentation of its strength and resources, and the protection of its citizens in their rights, with the preservation and improvement of their morals. Politics, as a science or an art, is a subject of vast extent and importance.
What with its ethical imperative, such a definition makes for a more thought-provoking take, don’t it, than the one to be found in my laptop’s New Oxford American Dictionary:
The activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, esp. the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power
More feat than stunt, to be sure, Webster’s great work, and the font which fed my favorite dictionary, Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd Edition, aka Webster’s 2nd Unabridged. So said, for your weekend read, I suggest perusing the father of all American Dictionaries, a hefty scanned version of a (sadly, somewhat) abridged 1858 edition of Webster’s late-life work. And if you can manage to get through the whole thing over Columbus Day, who knows: you might get a book out of it.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”