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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary » User review

An excellent story excellently told

  • Aug 7, 2006
Some readers, I know, dislike Simon Winchester's conversational, discursive, sometimes off-on-a-tangent narrative style, but I for one find it richly rewarding. I first discovered it in "Krakatoa," his book about that Indonesian volcano where it's even more in evidence than it is in this title. But even here, reading Winchester is like settling into a chair, or around a fire, to listen to a talented storyteller weave an entrancing tale. If your taste in history runs to deliberate, just-the-facts reportage, then Simon Winchester probably isn't for you. But if you're willing to trust the author and follow where he's leading you, I predict you'll find reading "The Professor and the Madman" a most satisfying experience.

Winchester had to put some effort into unraveling different, sometimes contradictory, versions of the story of Doctors Minor and Murray and their unusual partnership in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The care he took in tracking down records from St. Elizabeth's hospital in Washington, DC, as told in the Acknowledgements, is itself solid evidence of his determination to get the story right. He also maintains an excellent balance between the personalities involved, the overall story of the OED, and the tragic crime that underlies it all. It's to the author's true credit that in the end, he returns to George Merrett and his untimely death, closing his story with that image before our eyes.

"Popular history" too often is code for history-writing that dodges deep questions or merely reaffirms popular prejudices. But "The Professor and the Madman" is excellently-done narrative history that deserves the popularity it evidently enjoys.

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review by . August 03, 2008
Absent the anti-Christian bias of his geological disaster books, Winchester writes a very good tale about a fascinating sidebar of history during the compilation of the OED. The madman was an American military surgeon (son of missionaries to Sri Lanka!) who served in the Union army during the Civil War, whose slow spiral to insanity culminated in the shooting of an innocent man in London 15 years later. The professor was the editor of the OED who corresponded with the madman for 20 years at the …
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Andrew S. Rogers ()
Ranked #364
Mostly, I'm a moderately prolific Amazon.com reviewer who's giving Lunch a try as another venue for my reviews.
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About this book


When the editors of theOxford English Dictionaryput 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 ...

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Books, History, True Crime, British History, Oxford University Press, Oxford English Dictionary, Lexicography


ISBN-10: 006099486X
ISBN-13: 978-0060994860
Author: Simon Winchester
Genre: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Reference
Publisher: Harper Perennial
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