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

with 13 comments

This book has received a lot of attention from bloggers, so I’m guessing that most of you are familiar with the title if not the book itself. As I imagine is true for many readers, the title alone was enough to draw me in. Biblio-history, madness, and murder? Yes, please!

The book opens with the tragic murder of George Merrett, a London coal shoveler with six children and one on the way who was shot in the neck by a stranger on his way to work one dark morning in the slum of Lambeth, in the year 1871. At this point, the compilation of first Oxford English Dictionary, overseen by one Professor James Murray, had been in the works for almost a quarter of a century, and was nowhere near completion. There had been precursors to the OED, but most included only “unusual” words or words particular to specific fields of occupation or knowledge. None existed that included all words found in the English language.

It is difficult to imagine a time before such a dictionary existed, when there was no way to simply look up an unfamiliar word and definitions were subject to contradictory interpretations. It is also hard to picture how monumental a task such a compilation truly was: it took years for a select group of academic and literary elite to determine how the thing should be put together, and many hundreds of volunteers who agreed to scan books for certain words and send them in with the sentence in which they were found for context. Most interesting, to me, was the way in which the OED was meant to serve as a tool of imperialism; an homage to a superior and, once assembled, more easily spreadable language.

But of course, the tension of the book occurs when James Murray, determined to meet one William C. Minor, one of the most prolific volunteer contributors to the OED, is shocked to find that he’s locked away in an asylum for the criminally insane because of paranoid delusions and the random shooting of George Merret. Minor is really a sad figure. Highly educated, a trained American doctor who fought in the Civil War (and there had his first real “breakdown”), he was lucid and rational throughout most of his days; only at night did he succumb to illusions of persecution and erotic torment. He nonetheless received a number of privileges relative to his fellow inmates, and it was interesting to see how an illness which today would probably be diagnosed as schizophrenia was treated in an age when it was not yet named and even less understood. The surprise that the OED team felt upon learning that a “crazy” person could have been so useful to their project raises questions about how we view the intellectual potential of the mentally ill, though these questions are not explicitly addressed by Winchester.

The story was fascinating, as I expected it would be. I was unhappy, though, with Winchester’s writing. It was oddly paced; quick and exciting in short bursts and then, unfortunately, dull for longer periods of time. He also relied too much on conjecture for my taste. A perfect example was his admittedly unfounded wondering about the possibility that Minor might have had an affair with Merret’s widow, who forgave him for killing her husband and visited him in the asylum every once in a while, delivering books for his daily reading and word-listing. The assertion that this could be the case felt distasteful and like it came completely out of the blue, to me. In general, there were just too many small descriptions littered throughout the text that seemed completely unknowable.

Basically, the subject was great, but I wish someone else had written this book.

Written by Emily Jane

November 16, 2011 at 5:51 am

13 Responses

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  1. I enjoyed the book overall, but I agree with you about Winchester’s writing. I also disliked his occasional asides and rants about things he doesn’t agree with.


    November 16, 2011 at 11:22 am

    • I don’t remember that so much (ahem, I finished the book long before I wrote the review)…but yeah. I also managed to enjoyed it, just not as much as I could have.

      Emily Jane

      November 16, 2011 at 1:43 pm

  2. I enjoy Winchester’s writing but don’t want to marry it — it’s fun but it’s not fantastic. The story of the OED is really good though. You know Winchester wrote a whole book about the OED, which was also a lot of fun? It had charming footnotes about people shooting themselves in the foot.


    November 16, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    • I didn’t know Jenny! That book sounds fun. I’d perhaps be willing to give him another try…the parts of this one that were exciting and awesome were REALLY exciting and awesome, after all.

      Emily Jane

      November 16, 2011 at 1:46 pm

  3. This book does seem to be making the rounds. I agree with you – found the writing uneven and by times it kind of dragged… but was still an enjoyable read. I read it back in my pre-blogging days so am happy to see it getting reviews now still!


    November 16, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    • Yeah, it seems to have remained popular for a long time. The subject is just so irresistible!

      Emily Jane

      November 16, 2011 at 10:54 pm

  4. Too bad about the writing. I’ll try to ignore that if at all possible as I recently mooched the book and it sounds fantastic 🙂


    November 16, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    • It is too bad Bina, but it’s still worth the read. It’s certainly still entertaining (most of the time).

      Emily Jane

      November 16, 2011 at 10:55 pm

  5. I find I’m usually more willing to forgive things like ocasional rants or boring writing if the book is non-fiction and the subject is really interesting. A double standard, compared with fiction 🙂

    Alex (The Sleepless Reader)

    November 16, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    • I think I’m that way too, Alex. I wonder if it’s because on some subconscious level we generally assume non-fiction will be less interesting, or harder work maybe, than fiction. Or perhaps that the work of reading it will be worth it since we’re getting something “real” out of it as opposed to fiction which is often thought to be just entertaining and not as educational. That’s not necessarily what I believe when I’m actively thinking about it, but those are common ideas which perhaps we’re subject to. Can’t think of any other reason for that double standard.

      Emily Jane

      November 16, 2011 at 11:02 pm

  6. I ve not read any books by simon winchester but remember this coming out emily thanks for reminding me in your review I remember thinking at the time it sounds fairly interesting ,all the best stu


    November 17, 2011 at 11:35 am

    • You’re welcome Stu. It is interesting, despite my problems with it.

      Emily Jane

      November 18, 2011 at 1:38 am

  7. […] it on my Christmas list. 4. Booked All Week reviewed a book I wanted to read but kinda forgot about: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. I’m glad I was reminded! 5. BethFishReads posted about what sounds like a great foodie book: […]

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