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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Reading Spines

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks find inspiration on the spines of books.

I like to reread my books. Usually, but not always, I’ll do this by actually reading them. There are a number of books that I’ve enjoyed repeatedly enough that I can pick one up and open it to any spot to begin reading, comfortably slipping into text I’d not seen for years as though there has been but a brief conversational pause.

But sometimes I’ll reread my books without actually taking them down from the shelf. I can easily while away an hour or more simply sitting in front of a row of books and allowing my eyes to flit from title to title. The spines, names, and content of these works have resonance enough in my head that the words contained within the covers almost feel superfluous. As I gaze at these books I remember not only their stories, but also my experiences of how old I was when I first read it, what I was doing and feeling at the time, and all the other hazy peripherals that such memories hold.

Given that I can find myself so engaged in experiencing books I’ve read without opening them I find that I’m curious as to whether this will work with books that I haven’t yet read. And so today I’m in the stacks of a library, wandering slowly through and not reading the books, only their spines. For the most part this is a frustrating endeavor – the books I don’t yet know fail to speak to me in any substantial way, except to tempt me to stop walking about and to sit down for a read.

But then I happen across the section of the library where all the multi-volume reference sets are kept, and suddenly it is once again possible to enjoy the books without reading them. The abbreviated information on the spines of these encyclopedias and compendiums serves not only to give necessary information about what is in them, but also sparks my imagination about many other things that doubtless are not.

When looking across the rows and rows of books in these sets I feel as though they are telling me some unintentional story, one that doubtless exists only in my own imagination. The truncated titles of the Encyclopedia Americana suggest to me the plot of some mildly racy old Western page-turner, one in which Franco-Goethals (the writing on volume 12) is a 19th century railroad magnate who is trying to break up the romance between two doughty and rugged pioneers on the frontier, Indian-Jeffers (vol. 15) and Pumps-Russell (vol. 23).

Looking next to the Encyclopedia Britannica I find a fairly standard cloak and dagger tale of wartime espionage, in which a pair of mismatched agents in Britain’s spy service of WWII, Garrison-Halibut and Edward-Extract (vols. 10 and 8) match their wits against the nefarious Razor-Schurz (vol. 19), a German counter-espionage agent of unparalleled cunning.

I ended my peregrinations through the stacks of the library standing in front of the American National Biography, and the story on the spines of that august work seemed to tell a rather more tawdry story, with some tale of unrequited love between Jeremiah-Kurtz (vol. 12) and Gilbert-Hand (vol. 8 ), foiled by the machinations of the evil doctor, Kurtzman-Lovejoy (vol.13).

I have no interest in writing fiction, but should I ever find myself with such a yen I think that this is where I would go to find inspiration for a story. And until that day I will take comfort in the fact that there is yet one more way in which a book can tell a story, even if it’s not intending to.

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