Dictionary addiction...

Today's Sunday Telegraph's Literary Life column features Ammon Shea's new book, Reading The OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages which is as the title suggests - Shea read 20 volumes of the OED in one year. Why? It's either a genuine love of language or a nifty gimmick around which a book could be written and marketed. I'll not be cynical and say it's more of the former, than the latter, as Shea already owns 1000 dictionaries - commited, then.

The love of language, of wanting to learn and understand as many words as possible, has become, in the latter half of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, something liable to attract scorn. And yet it is admirable. One need only take a good look at best-seller lists to see formula fiction which doesn't revel in language at all - only as many plot twists and turns as each page can take in as simple language as possible. Which is a handy way of including Andrew O'Hagan's swipe not only at the type of reading promoted by the Richard & Judy lists which he accused of dumbing down during a debate held at the Edinburgh Festival, but also MAs in Creative Writing. He claims that many MA Creative Writing students are interested only in fame and not very much on the craft. I think I've posted before how I was offered a place on the MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, with Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, yet it all fell through and I subsequently studied for an MA in English Literature at my old university. When I told my publisher what had happened he said it was probably a good thing that I hadn't walked the Creative Writing path otherwise I may never have produced A Clockwork Apple - revelling as it does in a 'linguistic inventiveness'. Yet who knows, had I done the MA in CW I may be in an even better position? One can't know the outcome of 'roads not taken' and I'm not sure how helpful a creative writing course would have been for someone like me who hates working under the dark cloud of genre conventions and expectations and the like, although had I been able to take my place I would no doubt have grinned and bore it because I saw it as a way of getting closer to the 'industry'. But there is one thing I have noticed over the years - I've read more than my fair share of 'how to write a novel' books (a huge industry in themselves, usually written by unknown writers) and whilst they all give basically the same information - beware of adjectives, pace yourself, step outlines and character biogs - none of them talk about the most important thing for a writer - language - and it's potentials. Most creative writing books take the line that if you use an ornate, long word then you're showing off - which I find really sad. Not that I'm against concision. Richard Yates was a master at using short, sharp language - but it isn't for everyone, and writers shouldn't be made to feel ashamed for wanting to use longer, more inventive words.

Shea concludes that his dictionary reading reveals nothing less than 'a catalog of the foibles of the human condition'. Perhaps that's why not many people read dictionaries.

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