Book Review: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (Three Stars)

6570718

Book Review: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

(Three Stars)

“The story of an American soldier whose involvement in making the world’s greatest dictionary was singular, astonishing, memorable, and laudable–and yet at the same time wretchedly sad.”

The engaging tale of how William C. Minor, an American doctor, came to be imprisoned for most of his adult life in an English insane asylum, yet from those confines became a major contributor to one of the greatest works of scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

“The English, who had raised eccentricity and poor organization to a high art, and placed the scatterbrained on a pedestal, loathed such Middle European things as rules, conventions, and dictatorships.”

With hardly more material than might make a good periodical article, Winchester inflates the story with details extraneous, untrue (and he tells why they’re untrue) and extensive excerpts from the OED itself–fortunately, not at length.

“No one had a clue what they were up against: they were marching blindfolded through molasses.”

Along the way, the reader is entertained by the naiveté and persistence of the editors, especially James Murray, in producing this monumental undertaking.

“There is a cruel irony in this–that if he had been so treated [psychologically], he might never have felt impelled to work on it as he did. In a sense doing all these dictionary slips was his medication; in a way they became his therapy.”