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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:
Conversation — October 2, 2015, 8:26 am
“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”
Number of people who attended the World Grits Festival, held in St. George, South Carolina, last spring:
The brown bears of Greece continued chewing through telephone poles.
In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”
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“Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.”