The OED (as it is called by obsessive) is THE multi-volume mother of all English dictionaries and contains the history of each word. One braggart of a contemporary writer, David Foster Wallace (often referred to lovingly as DFW by his adherents and Wallace! by his enemies) claims to have read the thing (obligatory footnote). If you’ve seen it, these are huge, tabloid sized volumes that take up a whole shelf and probably weight ten pounds each and have tiny print. An insane thing for a book — but perfect for a database.
The text of the OED comes from the old study known as philology and now called entomology and it used to be at the center of the study of literature. Philology was the study several centuries ago that lead to linguistics and the rise of vernacular languages (English, French, German) as the center of various national identities that helped define the idea of these nations. As hard as it seems, at one time Beowulf, The Fairie Queene, Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales, etc. were not canonized.
I don’t know whether you’ve been following what has been the cultural wars, but there was for a time a critique from almost all fronts on the validity of a canon.
I think the argument has come through to the other side, and now there is a sense of the functional need for a canon because it provides a structure to access the heap of books we call literature. But, rather than a single canon, there is essentially a canon for very mode of discourse, or there will be. At the moment things have been pulverized to the point that when Derrida died a couple of years back, all of the obituaries writers were dancing on his grave.
DFW on the OED: I have read the OED, but I have a vastly abridged version of the OED. I wouldn’t say that I’ve read it all. When I was 13 I decided to try to get through it all and I got continuously up through K and then I began to skim. Unlike Hal, I do not remember it all, nor could I spout etymologies. Our family is weird. We would collect wordsboth my parents are huge readers. Whatever autobiographical stuff in the book is enhanced and, through some coincidence, slightly more impressive. Reference