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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Perhaps the greatest character of this story is the dictionary itself: a complete history and definition of every word that ever existed in the English language. Originally envisioned as a ten-year project that would produce 6,400 pages spread through four volumes, the finished product took 70 years to complete and comprised some 15,490 pages over ten volumes. There are 414,800 words in the OED, defined and illustrated by 1,861,200 quotations from some 4,500 works of literature by 2,700 writers, all of it compiled by 2,000 contributors around the globe. The entire enterprise was overseen by a single editor.
Though entrusted with the greatest literary project in the history of written English, James Murray (1837-1915) came from outside the establishment of London intellectual society and grew up in a world far removed from the rarified halls of Oxford University. A self-taught master of more than a dozen ancient and modern languages (his formal education ended at age 14), he developed a comprehensive knowledge of and driving passion for words. Murray's scholarly work brought him into the staid and prestigious London Philological Society. It was there that the dictionary project was launched and there, in 1879, that Murray was given control of it.
As the editor in chief, it was his job to ensure the absolutely accurate cataloguing of every word English writers have ever written. He oversaw a workshop of clerks and subeditors who received, sorted, and resorted the thousands of submissions pouring in weekly from hundreds of active contributors around the world. The readers' job was to find the earliest possible illustrative uses of every word, write them on slips of paper, and ship them off to Oxford. Some contributors were more trouble than use. Others distinguished themselves as invaluable researchers.
One of the most prolific readers was Dr. W. C. Minor, a retired U.S. Army captain, a Yale graduate, and an inmate of England's Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Cogent, but deeply and dangerously delusional, Minor contributed some 10,000 quotations to the dictionary over two decades.
The Professor and the Madman interweaves the sagas of Murray, Minor, and the OED with all the fascination of a well-crafted mystery, compelling the reader to find out how two such remarkable men came to cooperate on such a ludicrously ambitious project. Simon Winchester's history celebrates the dictionary, the man who made it happen, and one of the project's most remarkable volunteers. Three great stories for the price of one.