A few thoughts on the greatest book ever written

According to Amazon, the greatest book ever written weighs 151 pounds. It takes up approximately four feet of shelf space and because of its extreme weight, it is recommended that the shelves be reinforced so that they don’t bow. It retails, new, for a minimum of $1,500.

The first edition of the greatest book ever written took over seventy years from start to finish–the second edition came out in the late 1980s, and the third is in editing as I write. There was at first some argument about whether a hard copy version of the third edition would be released at all. A digitized version, given the constantly changing nature of this book, might make more sense. However, a hard copy version (of any edition) is a wonderful scholarly tool.

If I was going to be marooned on an island for the rest of my life, bereft of human contact, I would take a copy of the greatest book ever written and die content. One never simply “consults” the greatest book ever written, one dives into a wondrous sea of amazing things and digressions, and emerges several hours later unaware that any time has passed at all.

One of my earliest memories concerns the greatest book ever written.

My father and an English acquaintance and I were seated at dinner one evening and the two of them were discussing female genital mutilation, as she had just returned from the Sudan. Listening to their animated discussion, I broke into say:

“Father, what is ‘infibulation’?”

“Look it up in the OED,” he replied.

And so I did.

We owned the compact version of the Oxford English Dictionary, two handsome blue volumes weighing approximately 15 pounds in a matching slipcase. The top of the case held a little drawer, with magnifying glasses, to help you read the text. I hauled the heavy A-O volume down, and read:


noun the practice in some societies of removing the clitoris and labia of a girl or woman and stitching together the edges of the vulva to prevent sexual intercourse.

-DERIVATIVES infibulate verb.

-ORIGIN from Latin infibulare “?fasten with a clasp”.

After getting my definition of the practice under discussion, I returned to table and found it much easier to follow the conversation.

“Look it up in the OED” became a catchphrase in our house, and any semantic argument would be solved with the OED as the final arbiter. Guests who were less accustomed to our ways seemed somewhat surprised when one of us would dash out of the room, returning with the relevant volume, and leaf through it to the word under dispute.

The OED is like no other dictionary on Earth. It is an entirely revolutionary volume, created under the premise that English is a constantly evolving and changing language which cannot ever truly be “fixed” within the confines of a dictionary. Every word in existence is in the OED, or so the editors claim. And each of these words is meticulously documented–when one looks up a word, one can find out when it was first used historically. A definition of the word in its current usage (or usages) is available, as well as the etymology. And a list of illustrative quotations allow you to trace the word’s historical usage, as well.

The word of the day is always a fascinating glimpse into the heart of the dictionary for those unfortunate enough to be bereft of a copy.

Ownership of the OED can be perilous–one is easily distracted and sent on treasure hunts throughout the dictionary, and I have passed an entire afternoon navigating the thicket of thin leaf paper on what started as a simple quest.

Some might argue that the Gutenberg Bible is the greatest book ever published. While it certainly was a novel book in its day, it was far from the first to be published using movable type, and indeed wasn’t wholly manufactured on a press, as anyone who has seen it in person can see. As a technical accomplishment, the Bible is quite lovely, and Guternberg’s novel solutions to problems are quite interesting to those interested in letterpress. The lavish illuminations were hand created by monks, however. The Gutenberg Bible revolutionized Europe when it was published, being the first text vaguely accessible to the middle classes. It is almost more remarkable because it was printed in “vulgar latin,” meaning that more people of less education could read it. It is a handsome illuminated book, and well worth a visit–extant copies can be found here and there in the world, on display. However, it was not the first book in the world to be produced on a printing press (indeed, some might argue it wasn’t even the first book in Europe published on a press). It is also clear that movable type was an invention that probably would have arisen with or without Guternberg’s efforts–it is a natural extension of the block printing which already existed in Europe.

However, for the English speaking world, I would argue that the OED is the be all and end all of great books. It is the height of scholarship for English speakers and researchers, yet the scholarship is also of the people–even you can contribute to the next edition of the dictionary if you like. And that is a great thing. Not only is the OED a superb piece of scholarship, but it is also a democratic one–anyone who wishes may submit work to it, and if their work is deemed meritable, they will be published and credited among the contributors.

Owning a complete edition of the OED is a quest of mine, although I am holding off on purchase until I see whether or not the third edition will be produced in a hard copy version. If it is, I’m content to wait another fifty years for the greatest book ever written (3rd ed).