the meaning of everything

So far in 2007, I’ve started well over a score of books, and finished no more than a handful, well down on my two new books a week plus rereading of one or two more that was my diet while in Zürich (last year as I’ve pointed out until it’s painful, I devoted myself to reading all of Neal Stephenson’s works at least twice and occasionally four times, hence proving I have no life). My frustration in the absence of being utterly seduced by an author in no small measure is due to current poverty, prohibiting my evening visits to bookshops and buying something new based on a cryptic system of cross-referencing jacket quotes, quality of cover design, and other superstitious nervous tics.

Middlesex is currently the highlight of the year, for obvious reasons, though the final fifty or so pages from when Cal flees the surgery in New York were unnecessary, as we already know he finds peace with his body, and more importantly in the act of running away signifies his control over his own destiny; from then on, he is free, and thematically there is nothing more to add.

My current read, and I’m fairly sure it will be in the top ten for the year, entwines several of my other dirty pleasures, language, European history, and geeks. In no small way it owes its existence to the period covered in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, notably the consuming fixation of the era and its formidably erudite polymaths with systematically documenting, ordering, listing, assigning, and cataloguing everything. And while you’re busy at tabulating the universe, it is proper the language of the endeavour should also undergo such a project. Hence, The Meaning of Everything – The Story of The Oxford English Dictionary, populated by consumptive prodigies, lascivious proto-feminist in-name-only-solicitors, and rural amateur philologists, many with vast beards.

I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and special, has been my favourite pursuit during the whole of my life, and that I possess a general acquaintance with the languages and literature of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes – not indeed to say that I am familiar with all or nearly all of these, but that I possess that general lexical and structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge only a matter of a little application. With several I have more intimate acquaintance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a less degree, Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal & various dialects. In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, German, French & occasionally other languages), Flemish, German and Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic, my studies have been much closer, I have prepared some works for publication upon these languages, I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of the Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian, Cuneiform & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew & Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic, Arabic, Coptic, and Phenecian to the point where it was left by Gesenius.

(Letter of application to a post at the British Museum Library written by James Murray, to Thomas Watts, Keeper of Printed Books, November 1866. Murray’s application was not successful.)

— The Meaning of Everything