Perhaps it is just further proof of what a hopeless nerd I am, but the most compelling book I’ve read in a long time is about the Oxford English Dictionary. I don’t think it is just my quirky interests that made The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary a compelling read. Simon Winchester is a brilliant author in telling the story of how the dictionary was compiled and the brief history of dictionaries. There’s wonderful definitions from the OED at the head of every chapter and a detailed defense of the plural “protagonists”. But best of all, and the real focus of Winchester’s story, are the eccentric and, in one case, mad characters who did the actual writing and research for the OED. He is at once straightforward in telling us about their lives and quirks, but it tempered with an warm and genuine affection for them. It is a delightful and fascinating combination.
There is yet another nerdy reading choice to report. I loved Packing for Mars. I had put off reading it because I assumed that with all my hours watching NASA-TV, I knew most everything about astronaut training and space ship design. That was a silly assumption -- I apparently knew nothing! It could have easily been a very dry read, but Mary Roach’s science writing is at once clear, interesting and very, very funny. I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s, reading the section on the research of bodily waste issues in zero-gravity, and got a serious case of the giggles -- not just because I have a scatological sense of humor, but because it was so very funny! It is extraordinary the things people do for a living, researching issues things that are a serious matter in the business of space flight.
Fellow nerd and author AJ Jacobs enjoys poking fun at his own foibles and OCD tendencies, and invites his readers to laugh along with him. His Year of Living Biblically could have tipped over into pure farce, but he was earnest in learning as much as possible and fleshed out his experiment with many interviews with both serious Biblical scholars, rabbis and ministers and with some of the more fringe religious elements. I also enjoyed The Know It All, an account of his reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, in pure alphabetical order, in a year.