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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (P.S.)
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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (P.S.) [Paperback]

Simon Winchester
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (673 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews Review

The compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, 70 years in the making, was an intellectually heroic feat with a twist worthy of the greatest mystery fiction: one of its most valuable contributors was a criminally insane American physician, locked up in an English asylum for murder. British stage actor Simon Jones leads us through this uncommon meeting of minds (the other belonging to self-educated dictionary editor James Murray) at full gallop. Ultimately, it's hard to say which is more remarkable: the facts of this amazingly well-researched story, or the sound of author Simon Winchester's erudite prose. Jones's reading smoothly transports listeners to the 19th century, reminding us why so many brilliant people obsessively set out to catalogue the English language. This unabridged version contains an interview between Winchester and John Simpson, editor of the Oxford dictionary. (Running time: 6.5 hours, 6 cassettes) --Lou Schuler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The Oxford English Dictionary used 1,827,306 quotations to help define its 414,825 words. Tens of thousands of those used in the first edition came from the erudite, moneyed American Civil War veteran Dr. W.C. Minor?all from a cell at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Vanity Fair contributor Winchester (River at the Center of the World) has told his story in an imaginative if somewhat superficial work of historical journalism. Sketching Minor's childhood as a missionary's son and his travails as a young field surgeon, Winchester speculates on what may have triggered the prodigious paranoia that led Minor to seek respite in England in 1871 and, once there, to kill an innocent man. Pronounced insane and confined at Broadmoor with his collection of rare books, Minor happened upon a call for OED volunteers in the early 1880s. Here on more solid ground, Winchester enthusiastically chronicles Minor's subsequent correspondence with editor Dr. J.A.H. Murray, who, as Winchester shows, understood that Minor's endless scavenging for the first or best uses of words became his saving raison d'etre, and looked out for the increasingly frail man's well-being. Winchester fills out the story with a well-researched mini-history of the OED, a wonderful demonstration of the lexicography of the word "art" and a sympathetic account of Victorian attitudes toward insanity. With his cheeky way with a tale ("It is a brave and foolhardy and desperate man who will perform an autopeotomy" he writes of Minor's self-mutilation), Winchester celebrates a gloomy life brightened by devotion to a quietly noble, nearly anonymous task. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Peter Matson. BOMC selection.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

YA-This unusual and exciting account centers on two men involved in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary-Professor James Murray, its editor, and Dr. William Chester Minor, a true Connecticut Yankee who was one of the resource's most prolific contributors. The most surprising aspect of this long and productive partnership was that Dr. Minor, probably a schizophrenic, was incarcerated in England's most notorious insane asylum during the whole of their working relationship. He was a scholar and medical doctor whose fragile mental condition was probably exacerbated by duty as a surgeon during the American Civil War. His imprisonment was not harsh and his devotion to the cause of the dictionary and his precise and prolific contributions probably helped him hold on to some sense of reality. Winchester's descriptions of Civil War battlefields and the search for definitions of words such as aardvark or elephant are intriguing and compelling. This is a fine tale for both word lovers and history buffs. The momentum of the beginning scenes of warfare and murder are followed, not disappointingly, by descriptions of the trials and tribulations of dictionary crafting. Readers will meet some extraordinary men and an unusual woman, and find themselves well and truly ensconced in the late 19th century.
Susan H. Woodcock, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

The Oxford English Dictionary still stands as the distinctive and definitive history of the English Language. First suggested in 1857, this work proposed to present the history of every word by quoting the passage from literature where each was first used. Nearly 22 years later, the stalled project finally got moving with the selection of Dr. James Murray as editor. Handbills were distributed requesting volunteer readers to locate quotations and begin assembling word lists. One such flyer found its way to the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Crowthorne, Berkshire, where Dr. William C. Minor, who was committed in 1872 for murder, occupied two large cells. Minor would prove to be one of the most prolific contributors to the OED, submitting over 10,000 quotations. For nearly 20 years, Murray and Minor corresponded regularly regarding the finer points of their lexicographical endeavors. With the book nearly half completed, Murray felt it was important to personally meet and thank him. Winchester does a superb job of weaving the historical facts of murder, madness, and scholarly pursuit into a fitting tribute to the remarkable OED. As the reader of his own work, his voice perfectly evokes Victorian England. Highly recommended for all libraries.
-Gloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll., Kansas City, MO
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Distinguished journalist Winchester tells a marvelous, true story that few readers will have heard about. His narrative is based on official government files locked away for more than a century. As everyone knows, the Oxford English Dictionary is an essential library reference tool. The 12-volume OED took more than 70 years to produce, and one of its most distinguishing features is the copious quotations from published works to illustrate every shade of word usage. By the late 1890s the huge project was nearly half done, and the editor at the time, Professor James Murray, felt the need to meet and personally thank Dr. William Minor, with whom he had been in lengthy contact and who had contributed a lion's share of the quotations. As it turned out, Dr. Minor was an American surgeon who many years before had been found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity but had been incarcerated in an English asylum ever since. The tale of their affiliation and friendship reads like a creatively conceived novel. Brad Hooper --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

Remarkably readable, this chronicle of lexicography roams from the great dictionary itself to hidden nooks in the human psyche that sometimes house the motives for murder, the sources for sanity, and the blueprint for creativity. Manchester Guardian journalist Winchester (The River at the Center of the World, 1996; Pacific Rising, 1991) turns from Asia toward that most British of topics: the Oxford English Dictionary. His account is studded with odd persons and unexpected drama. To wit: When O.E.D. editor Professor James Murray headed off to meet a major contributor (of more than 10,000 entries) to his epochal reference work, he discovered that this distinguished philologist, Dr. William Chester Minor, was incarcerated for life in an asylum for the criminally insane. Minor, apparently a paranoiac killer, had committed murder in 1872; to his lasting travail, hed witnessed atrocities in the American Civil War. Latterly ailing (and sexually repressed), he clung to his lexicographic efforts for dear life and the sake of his sanityor what remained of it. All those Dictionary slips, opines Winchester, were [Minors] medication, [and] became his therapy. When he describes the original O.E.D.s ``twelve tombstone-sized volumes,'' we get a whiff of the grueling mental task exacted from its servants by the work, reminiscent of the labors involved in Melville's classic ``Bartleby the Scrivener''in a book that is similarly a psychological masterwork. In praising the achievement of the work, Winchester rejoices, ``It wears its status with a magisterial self-assurance, not least by giving its half million definitions a robustly Victorian certitude of tone.'' Winchesters own tone and his prose are wonderfully Victorian, an apt mirror for his subject. The author begins each chapter with an entry from the original O.E.D. as an appropriate heading, such as ``murder,'' ``lunatic,'' ``polymath'' (``a person of much or varied learning'') and, eventually, ``acknowledgment.'' First-rate writing: well-crafted, incisive, abundantly playful. (b&w photos, not seen) (Book- of-the-Month Club selection) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"An extraordinary tale, and Simon Winchester could not have told it better. . . . [He] has written a splendid book." -- -- The Economist

"a fascinating, spicy, learned tale" -- -- Richard Bernstein, New York Times

"elegant and scrupulous" -- --David Walton, New York Times Book Review --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, Atlantic, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa. In 2006, Mr. Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He lives in western Massachusetts.

From The Washington Post

"Winchester's history of the OED is brisk and entertaining" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From AudioFile

This is a fascinating true story well told about a murderous nutcase who contributed important entries to the original and monumental OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY*. The author has a listener-friendly voice, even though he seems to be fighting off a bug in his throat. He reads as if late for an appointment. Nonetheless, he gives us a satisfying listen. Y.R. (c) AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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