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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary [Audiobook, Unabridged] [Audio CD]

Simon Winchester
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (709 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 4, 2005

The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W.C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

This audio also includes a conversation between Simon Winchester and John Simpson, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

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Editorial Reviews Review

When the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary put out a call during the late 19th century pleading for "men of letters" to provide help with their mammoth undertaking, hundreds of responses came forth. Some helpers, like Dr. W.C. Minor, provided literally thousands of entries to the editors. But Minor, an American expatriate in England and a Civil War veteran, was actually a certified lunatic who turned in his dictionary entries from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Simon Winchester has produced a mesmerizing coda to the deeply troubled Minor's life, a life that in one sense began with the senseless murder of an innocent British brewery worker that the deluded Minor believed was an assassin sent by one of his numerous "enemies."

Winchester also paints a rich portrait of the OED's leading light, Professor James Murray, who spent more than 40 years of his life on a project he would not see completed in his lifetime. Winchester traces the origins of the drive to create a "Big Dictionary" down through Murray and far back into the past; the result is a fascinating compact history of the English language (albeit admittedly more interesting to linguistics enthusiasts than historians or true crime buffs). That Murray and Minor, whose lives took such wildly disparate turns yet were united in their fierce love of language, were able to view one another as peers and foster a warm friendship is just one of the delicately turned subplots of this compelling book. --Tjames Madison --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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.

Product Details

  • Audio CD: 6 pages
  • Publisher: HarperAudio; Unabridged edition (October 4, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060836261
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060836269
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5 x 5.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (709 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #428,874 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
230 of 242 people found the following review helpful
I purchased this book while in London recently under its British title THE SURGEON OF CROWTHORNE. Apparently for American readers, the publishers felt it necessary to "tart up" the title to THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN. Regardless, Simon Winchester's story between the covers is splendidly told, without sensationalising even the most horrific details, revealed matter of factly well into the book. The story is that of Dr. Minor - an American Civil War surgeon - who went mad amid the horrors of "The Wilderness." Pursued by his nightly demons, he later wound up in grim South London where he shot dead a totally innocent man. Sent to Broadmoor - a sprawling lunatic asylum near London - he became one of the most valuable contributors to the compilation of the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester recounts - correcting but not spoiling a wonderful story - the meeting between the OED's legendary James Murray and his reclusive contributor. While ultimately Dr Minor's story is a tragic one - not the least for his hapless victim - it is also a tribute to the persistence of the human mind. Cleverly presented with appropriate OED citings, this book is not to be missed for anyone interested in words. If you'll excuse the expression, this is the "definitive" work.
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89 of 95 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and well-researched, but a bit melodramatic September 14, 2000
James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, corresponded with Dr. W.C. Minor for many years; Dr. Minor was one of the most indefatigable contributors to the OED. Minor was committed to an Broadmoor asylum in 1872, having murdered an innocent man. Nowadays we would call him a paranoid schizophrenic; in those days they just called him insane.
In the asylum he had plenty of time to locate and submit thousands of usage slips to the OED, and thus began his relationship with Murray. It is an extraordinary relationship, and Winchester wrings every last drop of melodrama from it--to the point of irritating the reader.
For example, for many years there was a standard tale about the first meeting of Murray and Minor, in which Murray only finds out when he actually arrives at Broadmoor that Dr. Minor is not on the staff, but is an inmate. Winchester opens the book with the phrase "Popular myth has it that . . . " and proceeds to tell the tale; it is an engaging story, and he tells it well. However, halfway through the book he points out that it is false, and has been known to be so for several years. He does eventually give the true version of events, but dangling the attractive lie in front of the reader like this while delaying the less exciting truth is a sign of his weakness for sensationalism.
Another example (p. 195 in the paperback edition): after describing a particular gruesome episode of his madness, Winchester speculates for a whole page about a possible cause for which there is not even a hint of evidence--that Minor had an affair with the wife of the man he murdered. Winchester freely admits this is a complete fabrication, but includes it as "legitimate speculation"; to me, it feels more like tabloid journalism.
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108 of 118 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine book that needs an index March 3, 2001
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
For those who love words and reference books, this is a well-told yarn. Being the story of the relationship between one William Minor, a doctor and convicted lunatic suffering from paranoia, and James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, there is much more right with the book than wrong, but it does have some problems, primarily the lack of an index. Any book with so many names should have an index.

Secondly, one wishes to see and hear more -- the author refers to several interesting photographs: a formal farewell photo of Minor near the end of his life, returning to America after 37 years in England (all but one spent in Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane); the last photo of Murray, a fortnight before his death, in the Scriptorium (where the OED was compiled) surrounded by his daughters and staff. It would have been nice to see these pictures. The author refers several times to Minor's handwriting and many times to his letters. It would have added to the story to see at least a few letters in full, and particularly to have seen a sample of Minor's writing. In addition, Winchester credits the motivation for the creation of the OED to an address by Richard Trench, in which Trench delineates seven ways that dictionaries of the time were deficient, but then states that "most of them are technical and should not concern us here"! I think people interested in this book *would* most likely be interested in these technical details. If nothing else, they should be put in a (foot)note.
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating read October 26, 1999
By A Customer
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, mainly for learning about some of the key people and events behind one of the greatest undertakings in the English language. A lot of us today take the existence of the dictionary for granted, not realizing how it evolved from its first incarnations, or exactly what kind of work went into its preparation. Simon Winchester does a great job tracing the history of the dictionary to give frame of reference to his main story. The details of Dr. Minor's and James Murray's histories have been carefully researched and presented so as to thoroughly engage the reader. The only drawback I found is, despite the book's applaudable effort to dispel the myths surrounding Dr. Minor's involvement in the making of the OED, sometimes the writing style inadvertently falls into this same trap of myth-making. The words "lunatic" and "madman" are often used in the sensationalized sense the Victorians used them, thereby unnecessarily judging and glamorizing Dr. Minor's mental illness. Also, the defining incident at Lambeth is written as a Victorian thriller, complete with gas lamps, "bone-chilling cold" and a figure lurking in dark narrow streets. This extra air of mystery was not needed, as the real events are more than compelling enough to make you want to read more. All in all, though, an absorbing tale.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars fascinating tribute to the power of words
Rich historical detail combined with impressive storytelling make a compelling book. A must-read for those who cherish language and love words.
Published 4 days ago by bk
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 6 days ago by Carsten Faarvang
5.0 out of 5 stars A true tale that reads like fiction
For lovers of language, a most interesting book. It contains some unknown - to me - information about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Read more
Published 6 days ago by Dianne
5.0 out of 5 stars She loved it (maybe someday I'll get around to reading it)
Bought as a recommendation and gave it to my wife. She loved it (maybe someday I'll get around to reading it).
Published 7 days ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
great book! I love Simon Winchester!
Published 8 days ago by Bernard Zimmerman
5.0 out of 5 stars When you think, you read it all something new pops up,
The book is well balanced between the history of the OED and the life and times of Dr. William Minor, (a major contributor). Read more
Published 9 days ago by bernie
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read. The 19th century methods for the development ...
A good read. The 19th century methods for the development of the vast Oxford English Dictionary is as interesting as the quirky characters.
Published 12 days ago by Curtveld
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great read!
Published 13 days ago by L. Boden
5.0 out of 5 stars What a great story with a strang twist.
I never knew...but glad I do know. Wow!!!
Published 16 days ago by tom fatone
5.0 out of 5 stars Great listen
This is a great book--both engaging and informative. The tragic story of the madman is compelling and the book sums up with the paradox of this tragic man's contribution to those... Read more
Published 21 days ago by s losee
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More About the Author

Simon Winchester studied geology at Oxford and has written for Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. Simon Winchester's many books include The Professor and the Madman ; The Map that Changed the World ; Krakatoa; and A Crack in the Edge of the World. Each of these have both been New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. Mr. Winchester was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by HM The Queen in 2006. He lives in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.

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