Professor and the Madman (Winchester)

Author Bio 
Birth—September 28, 1944
Where—England, UK
Education—B.A., M.A., Oxford University
Awards—Order of the British Empire (OBE)
Currently—lives in Massachusetts, USA and Western Isles,

Simon Winchester was a geologist at Oxford and worked in Africa and on offshore oil rigs before becoming a full-time globe-trotting foreign correspondent and writer. He is the author of Krakatoa, The Map that Changed the World, The Professor and the Madman, and The Fracture Zone, among many other titles. He currently lives on a small farm in the Berkshires in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.

Back in the spring of 2001, Simon Winchester was annoyed that readers had hijacked Roget's Thesaurus and turned it into a catalog of synonyms. Or was it that he was vexed?

He was fairly cheesed off, at any rate, taking both to the pages of the Atlantic Monthly and the studios of National Public Radio to decry how Peter Mark Roget's project to classify and organize the English language has turned into little more than a crutch for students hoping to impress their teachers with 10-cent words. Winchester's suggestion? Burn it.

"We think of Roget as an omnium-gatherum, if you like, an olla podrida, a gallimaufry, a collection of synonyms," he told NPR's Bob Edwards, "whereas it has to be said that the English language—now I know that people will ring up with howls of derision and say this isn't true, but the English language is so precise a collection of words that there really is no synonym."

Winchester certainly has the standing to make such an argument. A writer and adventurer for more than 30 years—with articles in such publications as the National Geographic and Condé Nast Traveler and more than a dozen books on travel and history—Winchester is today best known for The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Oxford English Dictionary.

His 1998 book was the unlikeliest of best sellers, a book about a book, the world's first and still most comprehensive dictionary. With more than 400,000 definitions and almost 2 million usage examples, the OED was quite an undertaking, a more than seven-decade effort. Winchester takes great care to illustrate how mammoth and meticulously organized the process was: contributions from more than 2,000 of volunteers pouring in through the mail, carefully filed away into cubbyholes for future use. It may have been a labor of love over the English language, but it was also an excellent example of effective project management.

Winchester's book wasn't supposed to be one that would stay on the New York Times hardcover best seller list for more than a year. In fact, when it came time to publish book in the United States (it had already come out in the U.K.), Winchester's regular U. S. publisher passed, saying this was the subject of magazine articles, not books. Take it to the Atlantic Monthly.

It shows, I think, that there is deep, deep down—but underserved for a long time—an eagerness for real stories, real narratives, about rich and interesting things. We—writers, editors—just ignored this, by passed this. Now we are tapping into it again.

Winchester was heralded for his precise language, his brisk storytelling and re-creation of the fascinating relationship between the OED editor and his most prolific contributor, a murderer and asylum resident who complained of demons who would whisk him away to Constantinople brothels in the middle of the night.

Winchester, who, before his Madman success, had already filled bookshelves with tales from the Yangtze River, the Balkans, Argentina and Ulster, has now become publishing's king of what the New York Times calls "cocktail-party science." Reviewing Winchester's 2002 book, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883, the Times said:

This manner of amplifying science or history with odd, figurative footnotes has become extremely popular; just read a full-length book about salt, for example.... But since The Professor and the Madman...Mr. Winchester has emerged as the leading practitioner of the method.... The rich and fascinating Krakatoa confirms his pre-eminence.

Winchester himself has said he simply likes to be precise. In fact, when NPR's Bob Edwards said that the author's pro-precision/anti-thesaurus position might live him open to charges of anti-populism, even elitism, Winchester shrugged it off.

I have to say that I'm not against elitism in writing," he responded. "Not at all. I'm going to attempt till I go to my grave, I think, to write in as precise and evocative and romantic way as I can and to care about the language. So maybe the readers won't like it. So maybe I am elitist. So suck it up.

• Winchester once spent three months looking at whirlpools on assignment for Smithsonian magazine.

• He once wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times to correct a factual error in an article about where the millennium would first hit land on the morning of Jan. 1, 2000. (It was the island of Tafahi, not the coral atoll Kirabati.)

• He reportedly loves the words "butterfly" and "dawn." (From Barnes & Noble.)

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