This is almost my favorite kind of book, the work of social and intellectual history which through the oblique treatment of major developments manages to throw unusual light on humankind and its doings.
Will Self - The Times of London
Simply wonderful, a beautifully written narrative that worked both as a history of lexicography's greatest hit and as a drama.
Michael Kelly - Atlantic Monthly
In this elegant book the writer has created a vivid parable, in the spirit of Nabokov and Borges. There is much truth to be drawn from it, about Victorian pride, the relation between language and the world, and the fine line between sanity and madness.
The Wall Street Journal
It is one of the strengths of this book that it will, by its very sensationalism, attract and inform readers who might never normally lay down cold hard cash for the 'fascinating story of the history of English lexicography'.... For those who know little of lexicography, this book is an entertaining, though not wholly reliable, introduction to the subject, particularly enlightening for those who labour under the delusion that the OED's role is to prescribe what is 'proper' and 'improper' English. It's a story for readers who know the joy of words and can appreciate side trips through the history of dictionaries and marvel at the idea that when Shakespeare wrote, there were no dictionaries to consult.... Winchester, a British journalist who's written 12 other books, combines a reporter's eye for detail with a historian's sense of scale. His writing is droll and eloquent
Bob Minzesheimer - USA Today
When we're children, the easiest way for writers and teachers and parents to hook us with a story is to begin with the words "Imagine a time when there was no..." Simon Winchester, in his splendid, oddball slice of history The Professor and the Madman has come up with an irresistible hook. Imagine a time, Winchester asks us, when there were no dictionaries. That's such an unthinkable prospect to most readers (and writers) that Winchester needn't do any more to keep our interest. But he does. Winchester, a Salon contributor, uses this utterly fascinating account of how a combination of scholarship and nationalism begat what would become the Oxford English Dictionary (a project that would eventually take 70 years and 12 volumes to complete) to tell the story of the odd friendship the project sparked.
The project began in earnest in 1878 under the editorship of Professor James Murray, a philologist and school teacher. Handbills were distributed through bookstores and libraries asking for volunteer readers to begin assembling word lists and quotations that illustrated the meanings of those words. One of the most productive of the volunteers was Dr. William Charles Minor, an American Army surgeon who had served in the Civil War. Gratified, Murray repeatedly invited Minor to visit him, invitations Minor always turned down. Murray finally discovered why: Minor had been an inmate at the Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane since 1871, when, in a deluded state, he had killed a man.
Winchester wisely doesn't try to explain Minor's madness, though he suggests that it may have had something to do with his wartime experiences (particularly one episode in which he was made to brand an Irish deserter). Winchester doesn't need to point up the irony that at Broadmoor, Minor found a more humane environment than he did in the Army. His cell consisted of two rooms, one large enough to house the books he used to pass what he probably knew would be a life sentence. Minor emerges as a learned, essentially decent man (even the widow of the man he killed was a regular visitor for a time), sadly caught in the grip of obsessive delusions.
If the initial sections of his tale have the appeal of a gaslight Victorian thriller, Winchester doesn't leave it at that. He's a superb historian because he's a superb storyteller. Nothing he includes here—whether it's an examination of the section of London where Minor committed his crime, the genealogy of the two protagonists (usually the dullest part of any history or biography) or a brief history of the very notion of dictionaries—feels like it's impeding his story. The strange richness of it all is enhanced by the flawless clarity of Winchester's prose. His Victorian style, far from being a pastiche or postmodernist game-playing, is his natural mode of expression. In this passage, he imagines Shakespeare composing Twelfth Night without aid of a dictionary: "Now what, exactly, did William Shakespeare know about elephants? Moreover, what did he know of Elephants as hotels? The name was one that was given to a number of lodging houses in various cities dotted around Europe.... But however many there were—just why was this the case? Why name an inn after such a beast? And what was such a beast anyway? All of these are questions that, one would think, a writer should at least have been able to answer."
Minor's diligence as a contributor resulted in his being responsible for something like 10,000 words in the final OED. He hoped that focusing on this task would deliver him from his psychosis, but Minor was also following his curiosities. Winchester, investigating an odd bit of background trivia about the making of one of the world's great books, has the courage of his own curiosity. The elegant curio he has created is as enthralling as a good story can be and as informative as any history aspires to be.
Charles Taylor - Salon
The Oxford English Dictionary used 1,827,306 quotations to help define its 414,825 words. Tens of thousands of those used in the first edition came from the erudite, moneyed American Civil War veteran Dr. W.C. Minor—all from a cell at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Vanity Fair contributor Winchester (River at the Center of the World) has told his story in an imaginative if somewhat superficial work of historical journalism. Sketching Minor's childhood as a missionary's son and his travails as a young field surgeon, Winchester speculates on what may have triggered the prodigious paranoia that led Minor to seek respite in England in 1871 and, once there, to kill an innocent man. Pronounced insane and confined at Broadmoor with his collection of rare books, Minor happened upon a call for OED volunteers in the early 1880s. Here on more solid ground, Winchester enthusiastically chronicles Minor's subsequent correspondence with editor Dr. J.A.H. Murray, who, as Winchester shows, understood that Minor's endless scavenging for the first or best uses of words became his saving raison d'etre, and looked out for the increasingly frail man's well-being. Winchester fills out the story with a well-researched mini-history of the OED, a wonderful demonstration of the lexicography of the word 'art' and a sympathetic account of Victorian attitudes toward insanity. With his cheeky way with a tale ("It is a brave and foolhardy and desperate man who will perform an autopeotomy," he writes of Minor's self-mutilation), Winchester celebrates a gloomy life brightened by devotion to a quietly noble, nearly anonymous task.
William C. Minor (1834-1920) was a Civil War surgeon whose war experience caused his personality to change. He became paranoid and was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic. After three years in an asylum, he went to Europe in 1871 in pursuit of rest, getting as far as London before his paranoia caught up with him and he killed George Merritt. An English court found him not guilty on the ground of insanity, and Minor was sent to Broadmoor. Coming across a leaflet for volunteers to help compile a history of the English language, Minor offered his services, remaining vague about his background. After 17 years of correspondence, the editor of the came to meet Minor, who had submitted 10,000 definitions to the project, and was surprised that the genius was a patient at the Broadmoor Asylum. Finally released in 1910, Minor returned to the United States. Winchester's delightful, simply written book tells how a murderer made a huge contribution to what became a major reference source in the Western world. — Michael Sawyer, Northwestern Regional Library, Elkin, North Carolina
Remarkably readable, this chronicle of lexicography roams from the great dictionary itself to hidden nooks in the human psyche that sometimes house the motives for murder, the sources for sanity, and the blueprint for creativity. Manchester Guardian journalist Winchester (The River at the Center of the World) turns from Asia toward that most British of topics: the Oxford English Dictionary. His account is studded with odd persons and unexpected drama. To wit: When OED editor Professor James Murray headed off to meet a major contributor (of more than 10,000 entries) to his epochal reference work, he discovered that this distinguished philologist, Dr. William Chester Minor, was incarcerated for life in an asylum for the criminally insane. Minor, apparently a paranoiac killer, had committed murder in 1872.... Ailing (and sexually repressed), he clung to his lexicographic efforts for dear life and the sake of his sanity, or what remained of it. 'All those Dictionary slips,' opines Winchester, 'were [Minor's] medication, [and] became his therapy.' When he describes the original OED's '12 tombstone-sized volumes," we get a whiff of the grueling mental task exacted from its servants by the work, reminiscent of the labors involved in Melville's classic Bartleby the Scrivener, a book that is similarly a psychological masterwork. In praising the achievement of the work, Winchester rejoices, 'It wears its status with a magisterial self-assurance, not least by giving its half-million definitions a robustly Victorian certitude of tone.' Winchester's own tone and his prose are wonderfully Victorian, an apt mirror for his subject. The author begins each chapter with an entry from the original OED as an appropriate heading, such as 'murder,' 'lunatic,' 'polymath' ('a person of much or varied learning') and, eventually, 'acknowledgment.' First-rate writing: well-crafted, incisive, abundantly playful.
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