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The Madness of MokcikNab
Motives, movements and melodrama in the life of a thirty something mum.

Thursday, April 19, 2007
Words and Broken Bones

Much to my husband's exasperation and dismay, today I read three books at once : the prodigious Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman : A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The last I finished within the day, starting at seven in the morning when the book was graciously loaned to me by my friend, Mbak Lela and devoured to the last page while I stayed in bed, sustained by coffee-chocolate Tim Tams; and Gordon Sumner and lutenist Edin Karamazov playing out Songs from the Labyrinth.

It rained in the afternoon and into the early evening. Saiffuddin tried to lure me into conversation, was ignored and so tried other, more basic methods.

The fact that he succeeded was the yardstick by which I judged this book. It was good, but not compelling enough to make one refuse sex.

I liked Mr Winchester's writing style, so witty that it did not bore me through his descriptions of the laborious process of producing a dictionary, yet still elegantly Anglophile that my husband feigned a British accent when he read a paragraph. It is a curious tale, well told beyond any doubt and lovingly so, but I didn't think it lived up to the gushing edict that it is "the linguistic detective story of the decade". Still, it was fascinating enough to keep me reading, even after the aforementioned interlude. It offered nuggets of trivia about the language and the people who presided over it and I was intent on knowing the denouement of such a sad man as W.C Minor (and let's just pretend my husband didn't make jokes about his name) and his diligent friend, the editor of the OED, Sir James Murray. It does make me think about the dictionary differently, about how painstakingly it must have been put together and how flippantly people like me sometimes take the reference for granted. (It also makes me think of my friend Sofwan, who in his early career at Dewan Bahasa, worked on the English-Bahasa Malaysia dictionary with the aunt of a certain delicately beautiful newscaster)

But most of all it made my husband -- a man of numbers, mathematical assumptions and no talent for spelling -- so happy to crow that he is right : English words, he said, do drive men insane.


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