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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary Paperback – July 5, 2005
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"I found "The Professor and the Madman both enthralling and moving, in its brilliant reconstruction of a most improbable event: the major contributions made to the great Oxford English Dictionary by a deeply delusional, incarcerated "madman, " and the development of a true friendship between him and the editor of the OED. One sees here the redemptive potential of work and love in even the most deeply, "hopelessly, " psychotic."-- Oliver Sacks, M.D."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."-- "Kirkus Reviews" (starred)"An extraordinary tale, and Simon Winchester could not have told it better. . . . [He] has written a splendid book."-- "The Economist""Madness, violence, arcane obsessions, weird learning, ghastly comedy, all set out in an atmosphere of po-aced, high neo-Gothic. The geographical span is wide, from Dickensian London to Florida's Pensacola Bay, from the beaches at Trincomalee to the Civil War battlefields of the United States. . . . It is a wonderful story."-- John Banville, "Literary Review""This is almost my favorite kind of book: the work of social and intellectual history which through the oblique treatment of major developments manages to throw unusual light on humankind and its doings. . . . Simon Winchester's effortlessly clear, spare prose is the perfect vehicle for the tale . . . absolutely riveting."-- Will Self, "The Times" (London)"It's a story for readers who know the joy of words and can appreciate side trips through the history of dictionaries and marvel at the idea that whenShakespeare wrote, there we no dictionaries to consult.... Winchester, a British Journalist who's written 12 other books, combines a reporter's eye for detail with a historian's sense of scale. His writing is droll and eloquent"--Bob Minzesheimer, "USA Today"Winchester's history of the OED is brisk and entertaining"--Mark Rozzo, "Washington Post Book World""The Professor and the Madman...is the linguistic detective story of the decade.... Winchester does a superb job of historical research that should entice readers even more interested in deeds than words."--William Safire, "New York Times Magazine"elegant and scrupulous"--David Walton, "New York Times Book Review"Winchester has written a powerful account of the shifting foundations on which meaning is built, and the impoverishment of a language that could not describe or give peace to one of its makers."-- Lithe Sebesta, "New York Post"Mr. Winchester deftly weaves...a narrative full of suspense, pathos and humor.... In this elegant book the writer has created a vivid parable, in the spirit of Nabokov and Borges. There is much truth to be drawn from it, about Victorian pride, the relation between language and the world, and the fine line between sanity and madness."--Daniel Mark Epstein, "Wall Street Journal "a fascinating, spicy, learned tale"-- Richard Bernstein, "New York Times"Simon Winchester, in his splendid, oddball slice of history "The Professor and the Madman, has come up with an irresistible hook... [an] utterly fascinating account of how a combination of scholarship and nationalism begat what would become the "Oxford English Dictionary... If the initial sections of [Winchester's] tale have the appeal of a gaslight Victorianthriller, Winchester doesn't leave it at that. He's a superb historian because he's a superb storyteller.... The strange richness of it all is enhanced by the flawless clarity of Winchester's prose. Winchester, investigating an odd bit of background trivia about the making of one of the world's great books, has the courage of his own curiosity. The elegant curio he has created is as enthralling as a good story can be and as informative as any history aspires to be."--Charles Taylor, "Salon "One of the great strengths of this book is historical mise-en-scene, particularly for nineteenth-century America and England...[a] marvelous work of historical and philogical imagination."-- Linda Bridges, "National Review
About the Author
Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, The Men Who United the States, The Map That Changed the World, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa, all of which were New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. In 2006, Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He resides in western Massachusetts.
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Winchester weaves together the tale of Dr. Minor and the history of dictionaries leading up to the creation of the OED. English is a language quite different than many of the other European ones in the way it has grown explosively and liberally borrowed from others, and for quite a long time there was no real attempt to catalog it: a few volumes that sought to define the most unusual words existed, but an actual dictionary of ALL the words with ALL their meanings didn't really happen until the OED. It took decades of work and thousands of volunteers to develop the dictionary, and Minor's contribution thereto was significant indeed...enough to merit a dedication in the finished product even.
Dr. Minor was seriously ill and a criminal at that, but we should know by now that these things do not per se mean that someone is incapable of being a productive member of society. That being said, there is a shock value there: we don't usually think of murderers as the kind of people who wind up knee-deep in dictionary development. Winchester chooses to emphasize Minor's humanity rather than sensationalize his crime, taking us through his life as the son of missionaries in Sri Lanka (there's an odd bit of colonialism where Winchester is weirdly attached to the British name of Ceylon) through the horrors he would have seen as a medical professional in the Civil War and his subsequent mental decline, leading down to his crime and its punishment, and then wrapping up with his long years in institutional care. Even though because of the time in history, that care consisted mostly of a relatively gentle confinement rather than actual treatment, it still should be enough to remind us that there are probably plenty of people in jail or psychiatric hospitals today who do have something to offer the world.
The book itself is solid but not really exceptional in any way. It's an interesting story and well-told, but it wasn't an especially memorable or special read. For non-fiction readers or people interested in dictionary development, it's definitely a good choice, but I don't know that I'd recommend going out of one's way to read it if this sort of thing doesn't usually do it for you.
Among the latter, the most interesting was William Minor. An American and a doctor by training, he served in the US Army during the last years of the Civil War when he went through, and participated in, some gruesome events indeed. These events may or may not have triggered his paranoia which caused him to murder an innocent laborer in London, where he moved after the war's end. Whereupon he was judged insane and committed to an asylum for life. It was from his cell, in reality two comfortable rooms, that he made a vast contribution to the Dictionary.
The weakest part of the book comes towards the end, There Winchester, speculates--speculates is the right word--about what may have caused MInor's paranoia and mental illness. Comparing the symptoms to those of PTSD, he claims that the latter was first identified during the 1991 Gulf War! A pity, for I would gladly have given his book five stars.
A must read for the lover of the English language, for the conissour of words, for another indictment on war and its collateral damages, on the tragedy of mental illness and in the end the perseverance and resiliency of the human spirit.