Throwing Away the OED.

Jonathan Morse writes about “decisions in front of an emptying bookshelf and a filling wastebasket”; the first entry:

A photoreduced edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, acquired as a premium for joining a now dead twentieth-century institution, the Book-of-the-Month Club. I’ll keep the nice big magnifying glass that came with it, and at my age I still very much use my multi-volume full-size edition of the original, picked up from the express agency on the same day (April 9, 1968) that I took delivery of my late beloved 1968 Mustang. A book still makes for the best browsing experience, reading in the rising smell of mildew. Obviously, though, the new database OED can do things that are all but impossible with ink on paper. So goodbye, intermediate technology reducing every four pages of the word-hoard to one page to make room on the shelf for one more book a month. The old printed books that remain and the new printed books that will arrive are equally antique now. My wife the librarian says not even the Friends of the Library would want you.

I understand the reasoning, but I will never get rid of my own Compact Edition (I never had the magnifying glass, since I bought it off a guy who presumably had been a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club and had either lost the accessory or was keeping it for other purposes, but I’m nearsighted and so don’t need it — I can even read the reduced fine print without problem). Sure, the online version is convenient and more up-to-date (upper-to-date?), but sometimes you want to look up a word without firing up a computer, and what if the power goes out? I would not, however, want the full-size edition even if it were offered gratis: too many books already, too little shelf space.


  1. I have never regretted spending $2 on an oldish Compact Edition at our library’s book sale some four or five years ago. (I’m glad our Friends of the Library took them that year for their sale!) I’ve never regretted spending approximately $15 on a lighted magnifying glass, either. The OED comes in handy pretty frequently, both for me, looking up words when I translate, and for the cats, who love sitting on it.

  2. Yes, cats are great devotees of fat reference works.

  3. AJP Crown says

    Parrots like eating books, or ours did. Every Sunday I used to look at that Book of the Month Club OED deal on the back of the Book Review and imagine myself holding up the rectangular magnifying glass. I haven’t seen it for a while but I’m just about ready to sign up. And now you tell me I’ve missed it.

  4. The compact edition would be nice to have, but I can’t get misty-eyed about it. The last full-size edition, though, is an amazing beautiful book. Perfect typography, perfect paper. If only English had fewer words…

  5. The compact edition has the same typography, paper, and words. It’s just smaller.

  6. AJP Crown wrote: Parrots like eating books, or ours did.

    Ah, pets and paper! One of our cats loves shredding paper (articles I’ve ripped out of magazines are favorites) and biting books. Nearly every book I’ve translated has Ireland’s tooth marks on the cover and she’s so obsessed with Slav Sisters, an anthology of (translated) Russian short stories written by women, that I have to store it on the top shelf. Which means I keep forgetting it. This is a good reminder that I should take it down and shut myself away soon to read it!

  7. Michael Eochaidh says

    We had a cat who made a point of attacking her natural enemy, the printed word. She’d attack the newspaper, step on any book you were reading and throw up a hairball on any book you were foolish enough to leave on the floor. She was named after Virginia Woolf, so I suppose it was only natural.

    The current feline resident of the house just sticks a tail in front of my kindle or whatever physical book I’m trying to read. I imagine the late Ginnie somewhere shaking her paw at the lazy kids these says.

  8. In olden times I had a cat who would jump onto the newspaper as I was trying to read it — apart from being difficult he also liked the crinkly noises he could make.

    Now I read the paper on a tablet, which you would think be harder for a cat to interfere with — but the current resident will sit on my lap and reach up with one paw to pull my right hand down to petting position. So I have to hold the tablet in my left hand and try to turn the pages with my thumb. Probably for young people that is easy-peasy but I haven’t fully mastered the skill.

  9. John Cowan says

    Cats belong on the floor, dammit. A cat that jumps on my lap finds itself elsewhere in short order.

    (I have always lived with cats and wouldn’t want to do without them, but I don’t want them using me for a pedestal.)

  10. Well! I don’t see the point of having cats if they aren’t allowed — indeed encouraged — to sit on your lap. To deny them is to fight thousands of years of purposeful evolutionary progress.

  11. It is a source of constant sorrow to us that neither of our cats willingly sits on our laps, though Lyuba will sometimes stay for a minute or so if picked up and placed there.

  12. Our upstairs cat usually takes a couple of laps in front of whatever it is I’m trying to read, but in the last few months she has taken to settling down on my shoulder as her permanent position. Nicely out of the way.

    When I’m on the computer she likes to sit on the wireless router. I presume it’s warm. However it does have the on/off switch on the top, so we have become accustomed to sudden outages.

  13. Ugh, dogs maybe, cats never!

    To explain, I’m allergic to cats. Plus the fact that feral cats are eating up half the small native wildlife of Australia makes my blood boil.

  14. Used bookstores will still sell Compact Editions for tens of dollars, and some may ask over $100 for ones in very good condition. If I had to dispose of mine, I would try to sell it rather than dumping it in the recycle bin.

  15. Andrew Dunbar says

    Wow. Here in Australia I’ve only seen a compact edition for sale a couple of times. Maybe only the once. And I bought that one. I think I paid $350 AUD more than five years ago for a used one (with magnifying glass) and thought it well worth the money. But maybe it was only $100something. I know I’d seen a couple in used bookshops in Vancouver for quite a bit less, but getting one back home would’ve made it cost more. Plus what the hell to do with it while travelling around Canada and Mexico for x months?

    I did bring back a full-sized RAE from a used bookshop in Mexico City on that trip, but it weighed considerably less.

    At that time, though my eyes were always far from perfect, I could always read tiny tiny text and had much better night vision than any of my friends. But about five or six years ago while travelling in Japan I noticed that Japanese dictionaries were getting harder to read and I bought my first reading glasses. Now I doubt I could read my microprint OED even with its magnifying glass )-:

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