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Review of The Professor and the Madman

Originally published in 2 parts, in May 2004.
Book 17 in my first 52 books challenge.

Full title: The Professor and the Madman: A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Author: Simon Winchester
Published: 1998
Genre: History, biography, lexicography
Where got: National library

This book is about two men who worked on the making of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and their longstanding relationship. What got me interested in it was the title. We will have to see if the book lives up to it.

The story:
The book touches upon several subjects, but the core story is that of two men who were influential in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. One was Professor James Murray, the longest-serving editor of the OED, and the other was one of the most useful contributors of quotations to the book, Dr. William C. Minor, an inmate in a lunatic asylum (as they were called in those days). The life stories of both men are told in brief, showing how Prof. Murray rose from humble origins to become a philologist and a professor, and looking at Dr. Minor's career as an army surgeon in the American civil war and exploring the possible causes of his insanity. The history of British lexicography is touched upon, and also the conception and launching of the biggest lexicographical project ever undertaken: the Oxford English Dictionary.

The story-lines all come together in the second half of the book and we follow the relationship between Murray and Minor to the end, look at Minor's final years when he was finally released and sent home to the USA, and the OED's history is followed (in brief) up to modern times. It's really amazing how so much material made it into so short a book without becoming superficial: it is only 242 pages, including the preface, postscript and other end material. The only thing I missed was a bibliography.

The technical points:
This is another brilliantly written popular history book that reads like a novel (see my review of Seabiscuit). The narrative method takes some getting used to - at one point I became rather annoyed with the author for what I saw as over-usage of flashbacks, taking the reader back in time and to a different subject in every chapter and sometimes within chapters - but of course he had a good reason for telling the story in this way: There are so many narrative strands that have to be explored before they all come together that it would have been impossible to do it differently. I love the way each chapter is prefaced with one or more entries from the OED, explaining words that are pertinent to the subject of the chapter.

Rating: A fascinating snippet of history that is quite capable of gripping the reader until the end. 4 stars.


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