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Book Review: THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER, INSANITY, AND THE MAKING OF THE OED by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
by Simon Winchester

Synopsis:

Hidden within the rituals of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is a fascinating mystery. Professor James Murray was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was one of the most prolific contributors to the dictionary, sending thousands of neat, hand-written quotations from his home. After numerous refusals from Minor to visit his home in Oxford, Murray set out to find him. It was then that Murray would finally learn the truth about Minor – that, in addition to being a masterly wordsmith, he was also an insane murderer locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics. The Professor and the Madman is the unforgettable story of the madness and genius that contributed to one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters.

Review:

A fascinating read! I was put on the trail of this one in library school–a quick little lesson in my Reference and Information Services class on the Oxford English Dictionary concluded with the note “and if you find this at all interesting, you should check out The Professor and the Madmanand so I did! Thank you, Dr. Willson! 🙂

I never even considered the fact that there was a time before dictionaries–what a concept! I know, I know, obviously there had to be, but when Simon Winchester made a point of telling us that Shakespeare wrote, well, everything he ever wrote without being able to grab a dictionary off the shelf and check that he was using a word correctly because such a reference book hadn’t yet been invented?

That was it. Mind. Blown. Just like all those people in the Jet.com commercials. Yeah, that was me when I read that bit. Poof!

Mr. Winchester gives us a brief history of the very first dictionaries, and the thought process behind the decision to create the OED. Interesting stuff on its own…and then he turns his attention to the two men he’s going to focus on for the bulk of the book–Professor James Murray, the man who will lead the project for a good chunk of time (but sadly will die before it’s finished–because seventy years) and Dr. William Chester Minor, the completely insane American convicted of murder and institutionalized in England who contributed thousands of quotations to its publication.

(If you’re not familiar with the OED, check it out here. My university subscribes, so I’ve played around with it a bit–but even if your library doesn’t subscribe, there are still a few things you can look at on the site. One thing the dictionary prides itself on is trying to match up each of the various definitions of a word with the earliest possible examples of its use in that context. Many, many, many volunteers were needed to find those quotes–this is what Dr. Minor helped with.)

The words “completely insane” in reference to Dr. Minor are not at all hyperbole. He was absolutely off the deep end. Every time I started to think, oh, he can’t really be all that bad, surely? he’d go ahead and do something like chop off a body part.

Seriously. He did that. A part your typical guy is rather fond of.

So, yes, crazy.

But he also had tons of old and first edition books (he had two rooms in the asylum; TWO. One was his “library”), and tons of time on his hands. So finding the earliest and sometimes most obscure uses of a word in those books? Yeah, he could do that.

Mr. Winchester writes about the two men’s lives in a parallel fashion, which outlines their similarities and differences nicely. He gives us snippets of how the dictionary is put together (if you’re going to read this looking for a scholarly look at how to make this epic reference manual from start to finish, this isn’t it, sorry!) but spends the bulk of his time on the two men, their lives, and how they eventually came to intersect.

The one bit it’s hard to keep a hold of in your head is Minor’s victim–a father of seven (soon to be eight) who was on his way to work one morning when he was chased down by Minor in the street and shot until he was dead. Minor didn’t know him, and in fact the two had never met–his death was a consequence of coincidence, spectacularly bad timing, and Minor’s extreme paranoia. There isn’t even any marker signifying this poor man’s grave today–just tragic. Winchester, fortunately, doesn’t forget about the poor man, because he manages to bring our attention back to him again at the end, giving the story a tragic, if appropriate, feeling of symmetry.

One part that I really liked is how every chapter began with a (related to some way to the events of that chapter) word and its OED entry–great touch! The audio version concludes with an interview with the author that is nearly as interesting as the entire rest of the book; hopefully it is included in the print version as well.

Two enthusiastic thumbs up! If you’re a fan of the English language, words, history, or the OED, you should definitely give this one a try.

Rating: 4 1/2 stars / A

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