Thursday, November 19, 2015

`The Most Coveted and Desirable Book in the World'

Years ago, probably in the late seventies, I read a profile of Dr. Oliver Sacks in one of the news weeklies in which the writer/neurologist said he enjoyed reading the Oxford English Dictionary. This was before I had read Sacks’ work but I already sensed a kinship with this friend of W.H. Auden, another OED devotee. I too spent hours wandering in James Murray’s precursor to the internet. Last summer I read his second memoir and final book, On the Move, not long before his death on Aug. 30 at age eighty-two. In it he describes taking the test, after drinking “four or five” pints of hard cider, for a scholarship to study anatomy at Oxford. Sacks wins it, and writes:

“Fifty pounds came with a Theodore Williams Prize—50 pounds! I’d never had so much money at once. This time I went not to The White Horse but to Blackwell’s Bookshop next door to the pub, and bought, for 44 pounds, the 12 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. For me, the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf now and then for bedtime reading.”

One hears a strain of braggadocio, perhaps some blustery exaggeration, but I like to think the story is true. Sacks clearly loved language, enjoyed playing with it and hearing its music. Unlike Auden, he seldom used arcane words except for some scientific jargon, which he would carefully translate into lay language. For Sacks, words, like knowledge, were a sensuous pleasure. Though his prose is not showy, he was a disciplined voluptuary of language, as every writer ought to be. I thought of Sacks and the OED when reading the Irish poet Richard Murphy’s “Bookcase for the Oxford English Dictionary” (New Selected Poems, 1989):

“All the words I need
Stored like seed in a pyramid
To bring back from the dead your living shade
Lie coffined in this thing of wood you made
Of solid pine mortised and glued
Not long before you died.

“Words you’ll never read
Are good for nothing but to spread
Your greater love of craft in word and deed,
A gift to make your friends’ desires succeed
While inwardly with pain you bled
To keep your own pain hid.”

A word lover is a logophile, not so old a word as one might guess, according to the OED. Its first citation dates from 1959, and all five are drawn from newspapers or magazines. This is from the October 1972 issue of Scientific American, probably from Martin Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” column: “Who except a numerologist or logophile would see the letters U, S, A symmetrically placed in LOUISIANA?”

1 comment:

Suspirius said...

Logophile had actually made its debut in English at least by 1890 (in a translation of Ernest Renan’s L’Avenir de la Science), as acknowledged in volume 3 of the OED Additions series (1997). The attestation will no doubt be incorporated into the online edition when the entry is updated. As the search engine employed for the first edition comprised a small army of amateur logophiles, it’s ironic that the first appearance of this of all words should have slipped through the net.