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Words Out of Context

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, will be published by Perigee in July. In the post below Ammon, an expert dictionary reader, explains an alternative use for dictionaries.

About fifteen years ago I had the opportunity, like many other New Yorkers, to live and be burgled on the Lower East Side. The burglaries were inconvenient, but the rents were great, and the neighborhood was an interesting one. Of the many apartments in that area that I lived in I always think most fondly of the one on Ludlow Street, between Hester and Grand. It was a small and depressing place, but it smelled wonderful.

It was small and depressing because it consisted of a total of two rooms and one window. And that one window had to be left open constantly or the apartment would become stiflingly hot. This I did not mind, because I lived directly across from the exhaust vents of Gertel’s, one the last great Jewish bakeries on the Lower East Side. I may have only had one window, but that window had the smell of freshly baked hamantaschen blowing through it all day.

I was happy with this arrangement – I pulled the bed over next to the window and would fall asleep and wake up to the smell of pastry positively ringing in my nose – until one day when the landlord began building a cinderblock shed in the back yard. I don’t know what the purpose of the shed was, and I suspect that the landlord didn’t either, as he stopped building it when it was only half completed. It had several partial walls, one of which was in a vaguely staircase-like shape, and ended about two feet from my open window.

From that point onward I averaged two or three burglaries a week. I can’t really call them break-ins, because the burglars were just walking up a flight of stairs to an open window. I tried closing the window at night, but found myself unable to sleep. And the smell of the bakery was the only nice thing about the apartment – there was no reason to live there if I took that away.

There was nothing in the apartment worth stealing, and so little was ever taken, but it was still depressing to be broken into on such a regular basis. I decided one day that something needed to be done to spruce the place up and make it cheerier.

Out of all the unsavory aspects of the apartment – the concrete walls, the fluorescent lighting, the low ceilings – the one that bothered me the most was the cheap linoleum floor, covered as it was with hideous sky blue tiles, flecked with brown. So I resolved to replace the floor with something that was more visually appealing, something I would enjoy looking at, something more like a book. Exactly like a book, in fact.

It’s easy to tile the floor with a book, as long as you don’t much care about the long-term health of the floor you are tiling, or the book that you are using for tiles. The book that I chose was a copy of Ainsworth’s Latin-English dictionary from 1878 that was falling apart already and shedding bits of cover and spine whenever I looked at it.

I first painted the floor white, a job that was expedited by mainly pouring the paint on the floor and spreading it around with a large brush. As the paint dried a bit and became tacky I began to cut the pages of the book out and lay them down in rows. The paint was wet enough that the paper would stick to it as it dried. I kept the rows somewhat orderly, without paying too much attention to whether the tiles were exactly the same size or not.

After several hours and over a thousand pages I had tiled the entire apartment. I then poured the better part of a gallon of clear polyurethane over the pages, working my way from the back of the apartment to the front door. Once the gallon was spread over the entire floor I went out and walked about until it had dried.

I loved having a book for a floor. When I woke in the morning and sat up in bed I would begin the day by reading something next to my feet. As I sat in the kitchen and ate breakfast there would always be some words under the table that invited reading. Sometimes in the evening I would just sit in a chair and read my floor, periodically moving the chair about as I read my way from the sink to the refrigerator.

Why is it so often easier to appreciate things outside of their context? I’d never looked through Ainsworth’s dictionary much when it was a book, and yet when I turned it into floor tiles it suddenly became an object of great fascination. The fact that I now spent so much more time looking at it mitigated somewhat the guilt I felt at cutting up a book.

Ainsworth as a floor was much more interesting than Ainsworth as a dictionary, and yet nothing about it had changed, except for the way that I viewed it. So while I may have lost a book in the process of tiling my floor I also gained a perspective. And the burglars never returned.

Recent Comments

  1. Book Calendar

    What a classic New York story. I rather like the idea of using pages of a book as wallpaper. For a while, I lived in Brooklyn on Eastern Parkway across from the main library in a tiny studio apartment. I worked in the history division. It looked out on an alleyway.

    I went to an ironworker and had them install massive iron grates over the windows, probably illegal. It was like living in a monks cell. The ceilings were probably higher than the room was wide.

    I don’t remember being broken into that much. But, I do remember people trying to sell me all kinds of things, everything from an electric fat reducing machine to old books.

    It would be neat to read the floor. I think I might take a look at your book, Reading the OED.

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