Book Review: "The Meaning of Everything" by Simon Winchester

June 27, 2008

“Oxford Week” continues: I verify my word made it into the revered OED, I read a book about the history of the OED, I read two books in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy (partially set in Oxford), and even watched “Masterpiece Theater” last night, TiVoed from last week and set, again, in Oxford. Oxford, Oxford, Oxford!

What went wrong?

I love lexicography, I love the OED (heck, I even got a word into it). I love popular nonfiction. I like the 19th century. I like history.

So why didn’t I like this book? There were moments I did, like the blitz of letterpress details and type-geek tidbits that left me salivating in the middle of the book. But so much of the tale is an unraveling of the political forces both propelling the dictionary project and threatening to destroy it. I know these elements are essential, but my interests lie elsewhere.

This is the second book I’ve read by Simon Winchester about a topic that I have passion for (the other being “The Map that Changed the World”), and the second that has disappointed me. I can’t put my finger on what it is about his writing style, which is amenable to most other readers, that niggles at me. It feels laundry-list-ish and a bit too linear.

Still, I adore the Oxford English Dictionary. So I was in turmoil during my read–thrilled to learn more about the OED but stabbing my way through a dull portrayal.


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