Professor and the Madman (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch

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The Professor and the Madman
Simon Winchester, 1998
288 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
February 2011

You would hardly expect a book about a dictionary to be interesting. Yet when Simon Winchester's name is on the cover, you would expect a great read—and you'd be right.

Winchester recounts the history of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)—an undertaking that took 70 years with legions of volunteers, who combed through 1000s of books and submitted 2,000,000 quotes. Some poor soul had to oversee it all, and Winchester tells his story.

Two men—one a British banker and linguistic scholar, and the other a retired surgeon from the U.S. Army—form the heart of the story. Both were diffident, retiring, and highly learned with deep knowledge of literature and history. James Murray, the Brit, was handed the OED job in 1878, after 22 years of fits and starts by other editors. Dr. George Minor, the American, was committed to a British insane asylum.

Part of the story is how those two vastly different lives converged. From the asylum, George Minor learned of the OED project and submitted thousands of brilliant quotations to Murray. Yet Murray had no idea where his favorite contributor actually resided—until one day he took a trip to the English countryside to meet him.

In his telling, Winchester takes a lot of side trips himself...and sometimes the material feels like filler. Other times the digressions provide a wider perspective. In all, this is history lite—highly readable with an eccentric cast of characters in pursuit of strange obsessions. It's a terrific book club choice!

See our Reading Guide for The Professor and the Madman.

* This number refers to the current OED online version, according to Oxford University Press. The first 1928 edition, the subject of Winchester's book, contained 414,825 words (p. 220).

 

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