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.
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.
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