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BoSacks Speaks Out: The Oxford English Dictionary's Printed Edition: Are Its Days Really Numbered?

This simple story is all over the internet.

By Bob Sacks
Published: August 30, 2010

This simple story is all over the internet. It is quite possible that you have read it elsewhere. What I’m wondering is if there are any hidden implications to print publishing in general by the capitulation of the Oxford English Dictionary to go on-line only.

Let me add just a few personal thoughts on this subject. One of my favorite functions of eBooks is the onboard dictionary. The ability to immediately find out about the meaning of a word an author is using is still a wonder and joy of the ereading experience. In an eBook you just highlight the word in question and up pops a dictionary. I will admit to this small group of 15,000 of my closest friends that when reading an analog book I would usually guess the meaning of a word I didn’t know by the context of the sentence. I rarely got up to seek the dictionary, which we do own here in Copake, but I have rarely used when reading a novel. An additional personal note is this: If perchance I asked my wife Carol what the word means she immediately gets up and pulls out the unabridged dictionary and reads me the complete dictionary definition. So there you have two completely different approaches to similar conditions.

What of our children and our grandchildren? Only time will tell, but I think the Oxford English Dictionary made a sound decision when you consider the costs and more specifically the time involved in production, manufacturing and distribution, not to mention the actual usability statistics. There is not expected to be another edition for at least 10 years. Can you forecast what the reading experience will be like in August 2020? What will the size, shape and robust nature of the iPad and its sister clones be like in 10 years? The iPad is not even a year old and it has rewritten the directional maps of the publishing industry. The fact that in the 21st century Time Inc. has to rethink what a subscription is, because Steve Jobs says so, is both humbling and perhaps a bit foretelling.

“I sent my soul through the invisible,
some letter of that afterlife to spell;
and by and by my soul returned to me,
and answered, "I myself am Heav'n and Hell"”
- Omar Khayyam


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