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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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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
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.
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.
I knew nothing about the difficulties of compiling a dictionary of this nature and found the entire project fascinating. It introduced me to all the minutiae of decisions required to define the scope of this work.
The story of Dr. Minor is added to provide human interest. Winchester appears very Victorian in his handling of Minor's story. It's a little too flowery, to drawn-out, and too speculative.
I strongly recommend this reading if you are any kind of wordsmith but don't want to study the subject in great detail.
Instead this book plods. Then it turns about and plods again. Winchester cannot help but make unhelpful comments about stepmothers being bad for boys, he has opinions on every sundry topic you might imagine, and you will read them all. Worse, still, you'll read them more than once, because Winchester cannot write in a succinct linear fashion, but wanders through time like a lost mainspring looking for a watch. The various jumps about serve no purpose - they merely repeat the same material until one is ready to chuck to book in the wood stove.
This IS an interesting topic; this is not the book I'd choose to read about Dr. Minor and/or the OED given another choice.
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