simon winchester: the meaning of everything

this book — the story of the conception, genesis, derailing, struggle and eventual completion of the first Oxford English Dictionary — is really a model of popular history for me. intensely readable, excruciatingly erudite in a really humble way. it is a tour de force, but very quietly. most significantly, it doesn’t cite sources, even though from the scope of his writing he must have trawled through every single one of james murray‘s personal and professional correspondence, all the official documentation by the various publishers, colleges and other involved bodies, all the etymology! perhaps most terrifyingly, winchester certainly rummaged through the billions of paper slips, on which the legions of contributors transcribed endless examples of English-word usage and derivations and sent to murray in torrents. the sheer feat of the compilation of the dictionary staggers me — surely it was in a sense the first wiki project, due to the brilliant, prematurely modern practice of soliciting help from the public at large. but I think what’s nearly as astonishing is that simon winchester has woven all this archival chaos into one incomparably fluid narrative. there are definite parallels, I feel, in what murray did for the english language in assembling, editing and processing the endless chaos of slips of paper that poured relentlessly into his little Scriptorium, and what winchester has done for murray and the history of the dictionary.

but that’s really the work of a historian, isn’t it — the harnessing of this chaotic, archival disarray of really quite inscrutable sources into something readable, something coherent. and always that damned problem of selection, of finitude.

I should note that, appropriately for someone documenting the history of the greatest lexicographical accomplishment (ever), winchester has a facility with words and vocabulary that I would quite happily commit genocide for.

I always feel thoroughly incompetent when faced with the task of having to extract a coherent narrative from very disparate archival sources. everything is so bitty; worse yet, I function much more efficiently if I work top-down from a strong overarching view of the issue and events I’m trying to research, and so having to work from bottom-up, so to speak, is something I’m still trying to adjust to. my MPhil topic is frustratingly devoid of much strong narrative, and I’m finding it extremely daunting that essentially, I am going to have to write that strong narrative myself.

one thing I especially love about the meaning of everything is the wonderful eye for obscure but rich anecdotes that winchester has. therefore, note to self: in the much revered name of readable, accessible history, I totally need to take a leaf out of that book.


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