Sunday, March 25, 2007

Book Review: "Caught in the Web of Words"

One of the best parts of an open-ended reading assignment is getting to read books that have been sitting on the shelves for ages, patiently awaiting their turn. One of those is K.M. Elisabeth Murray's exquisite Caught in the Web of Words: James A.H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary." A biography of the author's grandfather, the great don of English lexicography and main editor for decades of the nascent OED, Caught in the Web is a balanced and revealing portrait of not just the man, but the incredibly complicated inner workings of the OED's creation.

I read Simon Winchester's works on Murray and the OED several years ago (The Meaning of Everything, and The Professor and the Madman) and enjoyed them well enough, but Murray puts them to shame. Drawing on the voluminous correspondence of Murray and his comrades-in-words, Ms. Murray is able to delve deep into the controversies - lexicographical, financial, spacial, and otherwise - that played into the long process of dictionary-making, and also reveals the personal side of the editor. A man who in effect gave up his life for "the cause," Murray nevertheless remained a committed family man, whose humor, dedication and intensity shine brightly in this book. Bicycle crashes (yes, plural) sand-monsters, ghost stories ... and always words.

This one flew by; I had a terrible time putting it down. Even the novel I've got going didn't tempt me from Caught in the Web. Excellent endnotes complete the package, and make this a definite recommendation. If it's been waiting on your "to be read" shelf as long as it was sitting on mine, why not give it a go? I know I've said that quite a few times already this year, but hey, that's what I'm here for, right?