Book spine poem: Walking Word by Word

Ninety years ago today, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – 414,825 words defined in 15,487 pages over 12 volumes – was completed. Invited by its editors to mark the anniversary, I’ve made a new book spine poem, dedicated to the OED and to James Murray:

[click to enlarge]

Photo of a stack of seven books, their spines facing front, and arranged to make a found poem, as presented in text below


Walking Word by Word

Caught in the web of words,
The loom of language,
The stuff of thought,
The story of writing ­­–
a line made by
walking word by
word through the
language glass.


Caught in the Web of Words by K. M. Elisabeth Murray, granddaughter of James, is an indispensable read for anyone interested in the OED or the history of lexicography. It was considered by Anthony Burgess to be one of the best biographies of the 20th century.

My thanks to the authors: K. M. Elisabeth Murray, Frederick Bodmer, Steven Pinker, Andrew Robinson, Sara Baume, Kory Stamper, and Guy Deutscher.

Some of these books and authors have featured before. You can browse the full archive of book spine poems, which also includes links to other people’s. Or join in, if you take a notion.

Update: This effort caught the eye of the good people at the OED, who interviewed me about language, dictionaries, and book spine poetry.


17 Responses to Book spine poem: Walking Word by Word

  1. gotetiblog says:

    Language as is, is a colored glass which shows real in an indirect method,shows other than what is.

  2. kcecelia says:

    This is beautiful, Stan. Your line-breaks within the last three book titles deepens the poetic meaning.

  3. Love it! If I had the knack you do, I’d put one together!

  4. Lovely. Maybe my fave of your word-spine poems yet.

  5. Deb Kean says:

    What a brilliant idea!

    • Stan Carey says:

      I first saw it done by the artist Nina Katchadourian, in her project ‘Sorted Books’. It’s a fun way to spend time rummaging around your bookshelves.

  6. May Yee says:

    Thanks for a great poem & wonderful idea! – just shared with reading/writing/editing friends (I’m also an editor). Here’s my 1st try:

    Daughter of Earth
    Holding up the sky
    World on fire
    When memory dies
    Memoria del fuego
    Rivers have sources
    trees have roots
    Mirror of the world
    Red Earth….

    (thanks to authors, Agnes Smedley, Barbara Mututantri, Amy Chua, A Sivanandan, Eduardo Galeano/Memory of Fire, Dionne Brand & Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta, Zhao Jinglun, Stephen Endicott)

  7. […] weeks ago I made a visual poem from book spines to mark the 90th anniversary of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED editors […]

  8. […] See how it works much, much better in Stan Carey’s post. […]

  9. […] and writer from the west of Ireland, and first published ‘Walking Word by Word’ on his blog, Sentence First. The poem is dedicated to the OED and to James Murray, the remarkable editor who led the first […]

  10. […] For further reading: […]

  11. […] almost forgot how much fun it is to make book spine poems. My last one was about a year ago (and led to an interview at the OED), so it’s about time I did another. This […]

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