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Review: The Professor and the Madman

Title: The Professor and the Madman

Author: Simon Winchester

Length: 242 pages (paperback)

One Sentence Summary: The most famous editor of The Oxford English Dictionary discovers that the greatest contributor to the OED is an American Civil War veteran living as an inmate in a home for the criminally insane.

One Sentence Review: Winchester’s history of the OED ties together many strands of history in a narrative that’s addicting and sobering all at the same time.

Rating: ★★★★½

One of my favorite things about this book is the subtitle — “A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary” — because it promises exactly what this book delivers. I was slightly skeptical that the making of the OED could deliver a story as compelling as this one, but Winchester really pulls it off.

Essentially, this book tells the parallel stories of Dr. W.C. Minor and Professor James Murray. Minor is an American Civil War veteran living in an asylum for the insane in Britain after killing a man in cold blood. Minor suffers from what we would now diagnose as schizophrenia, and only manages to hold himself together through his meticulous quotation contributions to the making of the OED. Murray, a bookworm and linguist, was one of the longest-serving editors during the making of the OED. Minor and Murray struck up an unlikely friendship through their common dedication to the OED, a friendship that survived even after Murray discovered Minor’s illness. The back drop of both stories is the making of the OED, but the book is much more of a character piece.

It’s clear that Winchester has an affection for all of his subjects, even Minor. By going back through Minor’s history and using detailed medical records of his condition, Winchester helps illuminate the world of this strange man. Thankfully, Winchester doesn’t trivialize Minor’s horrendous crime, but instead tries to understand what might have driven him mad and how the establishment let Minor down. I loved the way he showed Minor’s dedication to the OED and why the dictionary meant as much to Minor as Minor did to the dictionary.

Overall, The Professor and the Madman is a fun book to read. I stayed up much later than I should have quite a few nights in a row because I wanted to know what happened, even though, I suppose, I already knew what would happen. The book does a good job of balancing storytelling with history, and uses a lot of medical records and correspondence to give each of the characters their own voice in the story. If you have any interest in a history of the OED, this book is one you should definitely read.

Other Reviews: Rebecca Reads; Semicolon; What Kate’s Reading; Lotus Reads; books i done read;

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • thatsthebook April 28, 2009, 9:20 am

    This sounds like a great book. And I must say I love the title. Thanks for the great review.

  • Devourer of Books April 28, 2009, 11:29 am

    I really liked this one. My husband actually bought it for me as a gift when we first started dating, because he knew how much I loved to read and loved words and thought it seemed like something I would like. It actually reminded me a lot of “Devil in the White City,” it seemed to be the same sort of format.

  • raych April 28, 2009, 11:49 am

    I know, right? This book should have been WAAAAY more boring, but it totally does what it says on the tin. I loved it.


  • Nicole April 28, 2009, 12:31 pm

    I have had this book on my shelf for years and years. I tried reading it once and couldn’t get into it at the time. Eventually I will get around to it again. It still seems like it should be great, and your review seems to agree with that as well.

  • wordlily April 28, 2009, 12:45 pm

    Wow, this sounds like a great book to me.

  • Joseph April 28, 2009, 1:54 pm

    The Professor and the Madman is on my TBR list, but I have read and enjoyed Winchester’s other book about the OED, The Meaning of Everything. It is a broader history of the making of the OED. And, if that wasn’t enough OED madness for you, I would also recommend Reading the OED by Ammon Shea.

  • Jeanne April 28, 2009, 2:59 pm

    I remember this as a small book that I ripped through in no time because it was way more interesting and personal than I expected, given the subject matter!

  • bermudaonion April 28, 2009, 3:40 pm

    That does sound compelling! Great review.

  • Rebecca Reid April 28, 2009, 5:12 pm

    Thanks for linking to my review! I’m glad you liked this! I think I did like the Meaning of Everything more than this one but it is not quite as engaging– just more informative (which I preferred given the subject, I think).

  • softdrink April 28, 2009, 6:53 pm

    This one surprised me, too. It’s a great example of what non-fiction can be…engaging, entertaining and informative.

  • Care April 29, 2009, 7:25 am

    I loved this book, too! See? we DO have similar tastes in reading material. Do you have Out of the Flames on your tbr? by the Goldstones – I highly recommend it.

  • Fyrefly April 29, 2009, 10:13 am

    Oooh! I am normally not a huge history fan, but I’ll make exceptions for microhistories, and this one sounds like it would be really good. Off to my wishlist!

  • Charles B June 11, 2009, 11:54 pm

    This is my favorite book of all time, I recommend it to everyone.

    This is a non-fiction “story” that’s both entertaining and informative–Can anyone recommend other good books that match this description?