Synopsis: It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane–and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics. (From Harper Collins)
For the last twenty years or so, since I was old enough to know better, if anyone asked me what my favorite book ever was, I would answer, “The Oxford English Dictionary.” I adore dictionaries, and the queen of them all is the OED. Humongous, diligently researched, and continually updated, it is a map to the sprawling landscape of the English language. As a historian and writer myself, I love to read well-researched non-fiction, especially about subjects long dead (it has been my experience that they tend to focus more on the facts than biographical works whose subjects are still alive, and presumably still willing to sue). When I saw Winchester’s book, it never occurred to me not to buy it. I mention it so that you know my bias ahead of time, and can take what follows accordingly.
I adored this book.
It is a quick, light read which intermingles archaic word definitions with crime scene descriptions. It clears up some long-held myths about Minor’s involvement with the OED, sacrificing drama for the truth, which always scores points with me. At the same time, Winchester writes as if the mysteries are worth being surprised with, and lets the story be told almost chronologically.
I learned a great deal about the circumstances surrounding the move to create the OED in the first place. I guess that I had imagined there had been dictionaries for many hundreds of years, and that this was simply a better version of one. That the OED is better, is true; that dictionaries are an ancient institution is completely false. I felt for Mr. Minor, who was made to seem as much a victim of his disease as the man he murdered. I loved Professor Murray’s way of organizing the submissions which poured into his office like sea water filling the Titanic. He kept his ship from sinking, and transformed hundreds of thousands of quotes from thousands of volunteers around the world into a workable document. Simon Winchester went to the graveyards of the men most central to this book, literally and figuratively. He scoured newspapers, read medical reports, visited the asylum and the OED offices. He took this great mountain of information and translated it into a work which unfolds smoothly before you. I don’t think that a reader would require a great education in any particular subject before reading The Professor and the Madman, which I have seen with other non-fiction titles about academic subjects. Instead it is one of those rare but wonderful books which presents you with a story, answers your questions, and leaves you feeling uplifted by knowledge.
The little paperback version I bought has the story ending at page 221, with notes afterward. I recommend getting the P.S. edition if you can find it; it includes an interview with the author, dictionary words, and additional reading suggestions.
Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Harper Perennial, 2005. 242 pages, plus P.S. ISBN 0060839783