Connect the dots
It really is stunning, the sheer amount of information at our fingertips on the Web. Perhaps I should not mention that the following is how I spend my weekend, but ... alas.
Yesterday, I finished Ender's Game (who knew? I'm sort of loving science fiction!), and I picked an unread book off my shelf: Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Oxford English Dictionary, the story of OED editor James Murray and contributor WC Minor, who happened to live (for more than 30 years) in an asylum.
I'm almost finished, and my God, how the world has changed. It took decades, and tens (hundreds? Thousands?) of volunteers, reading books in English and cataloguing words, illustrated by historical usage, on slips of paper that they then passed along to Murray. I can't speak to the process that goes into the dictionary's revision today, but information is just so much faster: you don't even have to thumb through impossible, unwieldy tomes any more, you can simply log on to OED.com. I learned about the Web site's revamp (a list of changes can be found here) through a tweet by Felix Salmon; through February 5, 2011, you can log on for free and explore using the username "trynewoed" and the password "trynewoed." (Or, if you just want a glimpse of what one entry looks like, here is a sample, the definition of "digital.")
But, being curious like a cat, I was not (am not) content to simply explore the high-level subjects of the book. No, Winchester repeatedly mentions a publication from that era, The Athenaeum (a literary and scientific review printed in London from 1828 to 1923), and I wanted to know more. It was a long shot, but there was so little to lose that I decided to try anyway: I plugged the title into Google Books.
Lo and behold, a copy of an issue covering January to June, 1870, popped up; the full text was available. This issue came from the Harvard University library. It is formatted in three columns and the type is tiny; it would be difficult, if not impossible, to undertake any academic research based on this digital collection, but for a dilettante such as myself, it is a gold mine.
I've been skimming the work for quite some time now. My progress is hampered by my frequent tracking down of other interesting books mentioned, even in passing. For example, I fell into a rabbithole looking at Old Merry's Queer Discourses on Queer Proverbs, for which the etching of the cat and mice above served as a frontispiece.
Who or what was "Old Merry"? Well, for that, I have no answer; Google did not provide adequate information, only references to "old, merry England," and a link back to The Athenaeum. To the New York Public Library with ye!