Saturday, August 23, 2008

423: Murder and the OED

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester tells the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps the greatest reference work ever written on the English language. Wrapped around the story of the dictionary is the odd story of two men who were significantly involved in the project.

Professor James Murray was a scholar and linguist, and was selected by the Delegates of the Oxford University Press to take over the troubled OED project after the first attempt stalled under its own weight. He was given 10 years to complete the dictionary; it would ultimately take more than half a century, and he would die before the OED was finished.

Dr William Minor, an American Civil War veteran and surgeon, submitted more than ten thousand definitions, many of which were used in the final publication. He was also a murderer, and an inmate at an insane asylum.

The book succeeds in capturing the immensity of the task of creating a dictionary that defines every word in the English language, from everyday words like of to the obscure, regional or obsolete, such as the old Kentish word zykt (a local variant of the verb to see). The OED defined more than 400,000 words, using 1.8 million quotations to illustrate the correct usage of each.

The author slices through the myth and legend that has grown up around this story to find the true story, which is even stranger than the fiction. A highly recommended, very entertaining book.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A solution for missing categories

My first reaction to the unassigned categories list was "94 books down!"

But then I had a better idea. One of the drawbacks of this contest is that I only get one book per category, no matter what. This means that sometimes I have to skip extremely interesting looking books because the category is already filled. Even though I've only read 6 books, I've already had a dozen or more blocked for this reason.

My solution is to use the unassigned categories as wildcards. For each unassigned category, I will read another book from the same class. For example, there are 7 unassigned categories throughout 600 Technology. That means I can read 7 more books from any category in 600.

Another advantage is that it makes the contest a nice round number. Instead of saying I'm reading 906 books, I can say I'm reading 1000. It also makes a lot of math simpler for things like progress bars and charts.

And before some rules lawyer out there brings it up, yes, I initially considered staying in the same subcategory for the substitution. For example, the replacement to 699 [Unassigned] must be something in 690 Buildings.

I rejected it because I don't think it will work very well. The reason there are unassigned numbers in a subcategory is that there simply aren't enough topics in that area to need numbers. So I'm probably not going to have very many duplicate books in that subcategory in the first place. In some cases, such as the 110 Metaphysics area, my library literally doesn't have ANY books, so finding a replacement in that category would be madness.

Of course, if you can't live with this egregious rule bending, you are more than welcome to start your own, far superior, Dewey reading contest. Please let me know so that I can link to your site.

The missing categories

I finally got around to creating a spreadsheet of all the of unassigned or optional categories. Unassigned categories are ones that have been moved, deleted, or were never in use. Optional are categories where the official standard allows "options to standard practice", whatever that means. Almost all of the optional categories are under 920 Biography, so perhaps some libraries used those values to organize biographies?

Here is a summary table of all the missing categories:

Unassigned categories

Monday, August 18, 2008

956: Baghdad

When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World by Hugh Kennedy is a well-written and entertaining history of the Abbasid caliphs, who ruled the Muslim world for about 200 years from AD 762. This period is often referred to as the Golden Era of the Islamic empire, where poetry and science flourished, and their wealth seemed endless.

One of the things I liked most about the book was its extensive use of original sources. The author uses a number of writings from Arabian historians from that era, which provides insight on how the events of the day were perceived. When a caliph dies early in his reign (which happened a lot!), the author is often able to indicate whether the death was suspicious or just bad luck.

While the material can be a little tough at times (particularly when it comes to names of the caliphs, which appear to all start with the letter 'M', and which often changed when they took the position), the author does an excellent job of keeping things moving, with many stories and amusing anecdotes.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

800 is a problem

Initially, I wasn't too worried about 800 Literature & rhetoric. I haven't read many classics since I was forced to in high school, so I thought this would be a great chance to read the great works of the world. As a result, I didn't particularly focus on finding works in the 800s.

Accordingly, it's become a problem category. I have 5 books in the 800s, but they are in two categories 808 and 818.

808 Rhetoric & collections of literature appears to be where every book on the process of writing is dumped, and has roughly ten thousand entries on writing everything from writing children's fiction to writing exciting procedural thrillers featuring hermaphrodite forensic accountants. Frequent readers of my blog can look forward to my writing improving after I finally reach that section.

818 Miscellaneous writings (Under 810 American & Canadian literature) is broad enough to include:
  • Walden by this Thoreau fellow, who I hear is good.
  • The zombie survival guide : complete protection from the living dead, an important topic for anyone.
  • I am America (and so can you!) by Stephen Colbert, former vice presidential candidate to Mike Huckabee.
It won't be hard to find something to read in 818, but narrowing it down could be difficult.

The other problem is that much of the literature is classified fiction, and doesn't appear in the non-fiction numbers. For instance, 833 German fiction has about 20 books, mostly about German fiction. There is a book on Gunter Grass, but none of the books by Gunter Grass.

On the other hand, Dante can be found in 851 Italian poetry. Is the distinction whether the book is modern? I notice Mary Shelley's works are still in fiction.

Maybe I should have known more about the DDC before I set this challenge. If only there were a book on the topic, and some sort of local facility that would store the book and lend it freely to anyone who wanted to read it.