Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
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Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

3.9 102
by Simon Winchester
     
 

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One of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters was the creation of the Oxford English dictionary. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story. Professor James Murray was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was

Overview

One of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters was the creation of the Oxford English dictionary. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story. Professor James Murray was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was one of many contributors to the dictionary, sending thousands of neat, hand-written quotations from his home. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray's offer was regularly, mysteriously, refused. Finally, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that he learned the truth about Minor... that, in addition to being a masterly wordsmith, he was also a murderer -- locked up in England's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics. With riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester delivers a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary. This audiobook also includes an interview between Simon Winchester and John Simpson, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
September 1998

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.

The 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.

The Reader
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 Book
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.

--Greg Sewell

Economist
An extraordinary tale, and Simon Winchester could not have told it better. . . . [He] has written a splendid book.
Wall Street Journal
Deftly weaves into a narrative full of suspense, pathos and humor.
New York Times Book Review
Elegant. . .imaginative. . .One of the strangest modern literary stories.
Bob Minzesheimer
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.
USA Today
San Francisco Chronicle
Engaging, especially for readers who love words.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
A literate, poignant story about extraordinary friendship and ordinary words.
Boston Globe
A fascinating tale of madness. . .a compelling slice of social and intellectual history.
Globe and Mail
...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.
USA Today
Droll and eloquent.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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.
KLIATT
This engaging book has three primary "characters": Sir James Murray, the editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED); Dr. William Minor, a major contributor to that edition; and finally, the dictionary itself. Murray, a school dropout and a completely self-educated man, undertook the massive task of assembling the first complete dictionary in the English language. It was accomplished by many, many volunteers who read books from all periods of publishing and sent in quotations using the words needed. One of the volunteers was Dr. Minor, an American who murdered a man in London—the father of many children—and was sent to Broadmoor, a lunatic asylum. While there he read of the appeal for volunteers and applied himself to the exclusion of everything else in his life. For quite some time Murray knew nothing of Minor's background as the latter had not given the name of the institution with his return address. However, in time he did find out, went to visit Minor and they became fast friends in a most touching relationship. The third "character," the dictionary itself, is the background for Winchester's history of English lexicography, which he presents in a fascinating way. The dictionary took 70 years to complete (eight years beyond the death of Murray); it was published in 12 volumes, and defined 414,825 words. Minor contributed thousands and thousands of them. In considering the mammoth size of the task, remember that there were no dictionaries as we know them in the English language prior to this major undertaking. (Shakespeare had no dictionary.) Winchester calls it "the greatest effort since the invention of printing." The biographies of the two menrequired prodigious research on the part of Winchester, and the profiles of some of the minor figures, such as the murder victim, his wife, and the heads of the lunatic asylum, are interesting as well. This book may even send some students to the OED, which is now on CD-ROM. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, HarperPerennial, 242p, 21cm, bibliog, 98-10204, $13.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Doris Hiatt; May 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 3)
Library Journal
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 Oxford English Dictionary 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
School Library Journal
YA-This unusual and exciting account centers on two men involved in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary-Professor James Murray, its editor, and Dr. William Chester Minor, a true Connecticut Yankee who was one of the resource's most prolific contributors. The most surprising aspect of this long and productive partnership was that Dr. Minor, probably a schizophrenic, was incarcerated in England's most notorious insane asylum during the whole of their working relationship. He was a scholar and medical doctor whose fragile mental condition was probably exacerbated by duty as a surgeon during the American Civil War. His imprisonment was not harsh and his devotion to the cause of the dictionary and his precise and prolific contributions probably helped him hold on to some sense of reality. Winchester's descriptions of Civil War battlefields and the search for definitions of words such as aardvark or elephant are intriguing and compelling. This is a fine tale for both word lovers and history buffs. The momentum of the beginning scenes of warfare and murder are followed, not disappointingly, by descriptions of the trials and tribulations of dictionary crafting. Readers will meet some extraordinary men and an unusual woman, and find themselves well and truly ensconced in the late 19th century.-Susan H. Woodcock, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA
Booknews
A fine storyteller takes on a great story: American surgeon living in London kills a stranger, judged insane, incarcerated, connects with Jas. Murray the editor of the original OED, over decades contributes 10,000 examples of usage to the great dictionary. Good description of the creation of the OED. No index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknew.com)
Time Out
[Winchester's]. . .casual and engaging prose makes the book appealing to lay readers of general history. . .the author can't seem to stop getting in the way of his story. . .psychological insights are often labored and conjectural. . . .an interesting read on the background of one of the most important books in the English language.
Chicago Tribune
Winchester's eye for fascinating detail and gritty historical perspective. . . .make the book a compelling read.
Time Out New York
[Winchester's]. . .casual and engaging prose makes the book appealing to lay readers of general history. . .the author can't seem to stop getting in the way of his story. . .psychological insights are often labored and conjectural. . . .an interesting read on the background of one of the most important books in the English language.
The Wall Street Journal
Deftly weaves into a narrative full of suspense, pathos and humor.
The Boston Globe
A fascinating tale of madness. . .a compelling slice of social and intellectual history.
Vanessa V. Friedman
. . .[T]he book has a certain old-fashioned sweetness. Think of it as a stocking stuffer for the literary set.
-- Entertainment Weekly
Mark Rozzo
Brisk and entertaining. -- Washington Post Book World
John Banville
Madness, violence, arcane obsessions, weird learning, ghastly comedy, all set out in an atmosphere of. . .high neo-Gothic. The geographical span is wide, from Dickensian London to Florida's Pensacola Bay, from the beaches at Trincomalee to the Civil War battlefields of the United States. . . . It is a wonderful story. -- Literary Review
Charles Taylor
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. --Salon Sept. 3, 1998

Will Self
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... Simon Winchester's effortlessly clear, spare prose is the perfect vehicle for the tale... absolutely riveting. -- The Times(London)
Richard Bernstein
Artfully parallels the story of . . .two extraordinary men, the eccentric professor and the murderer with the sharp intellect. -- The New York Times
The Economist
An extraordinary tale, and Simon Wincheter could not have told it better.... [He] has written a splendid book.
NY Times Book Review
Elegant. . .imaginative. . .One of the strangest modern literary stories.
Kirkus Reviews
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 O.E.D. 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 O.E.D.'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 O.E.D. 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060839789
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
07/05/2005
Series:
P.S. Series
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
78,402
Product dimensions:
7.92(w) x 5.26(h) x 0.61(d)
Lexile:
1330L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt


the dead of Night
in Lambeth Marsh

Murder (m2.0de0), sb. Forms: a. 1 mor1or, -ur, 3-4 mor1re, 3-4, 6 murthre, 4 myr1er, 4-6 murthir, morther, 5 Sc. murthour, murthyr, 5-6 murthur, 6 mwrther, Sc. morthour, 4-9 (now dial. and Hist. or arch.) murther; b. 3-5 murdre, 4-5 moerdre, 4-6 mordre, 5 moordre, 6 murdur, mourdre, 6- murder. [OE. mor3or neut. (with pl. of masc. form mor1ras) = Goth. maur1r neut.:-OTeut. *mur1rom:-pre-Teut. *mrtro-m, f. root *mer-: mor-: mr- to die, whence L. mori' to die, mors (morti-) death, Gr. mort'j, brot'j mortal, Skr. mr. to die, mara masc., mrti fem., death, marta mortal, OSl. mi'r'eti, Lith. mirti to die, Welsh marw, Irish mar1 dead.
The word has not been found in any Teut. lang. but Eng. and Gothic, but that it existed in continental WGer. is evident, as it is the source of OF. murdre, murtre (mod. F. meurtre) and of med. L. mordrum, murdrum, and OHG. had the derivative murdren Murder v. All the Teut. langs. exc. Gothic possessed a synonymous word from the same root with different suffix: OE. mor3 neut., masc. (Murth1), OS. mor3 neut., OFris. morth, mord neut., MDu. mort, mord neut. (Du. moord), OHG. mord (MHG. mort, mod. G. mord), ON. mor3 neut.:-OTeut. *mur1o-:-pre-Teut. *mrto-.
The change of original 3 into d (contrary to the general tendency to change d into 3 before syllabic r) was prob. due to the influence of the AF. murdre, moerdre and the Law Latin murdrum.]
1. The most heinous kind of criminal homicide; also, an instance of this. In English (also Sc. and U.S.) Law, defined as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought; often more explicitly wilful murder.
In OE. the word could be applied to any homicide that was strongly reprobated (it had also the senses 'great wickedness', 'deadly injury', 'torment'). More strictly, however, it denoted secret murder, which in Germanic antiquity was alone regarded as (in the modern sense) a crime, open homicide being considered a private wrong calling for blood-revenge or compensation. Even under Edward I, Britton explains the AF. murdre only as felonious homicide of which both the perpetrator and the victim are unidentified. The 'malice aforethought' which enters into the legal definition of murder, does not (as now interpreted) admit of any summary definition. A person may even be guilty of 'wilful murder' without intending the death of the victim, as when death results from an unlawful act which the doer knew to be likely to cause the death of some one, or from injuries inflicted to facilitate the commission of certain offences. It is essential to 'murder' that the perpetrator be of sound mind, and (in England, though not in Scotland) that death should ensue within a year and a day after the act presumed to have caused it. In British law no degrees of guilt are recognized in murder; in the U.S. the law distinguishes 'murder in the first degree' (where there are no mitigating circumstances) and 'murder in the second degree'.


In Victorian London, even in a place as louche and notoriously crime-ridden as Lambeth Marsh, the sound of gunshots was a rare event indeed. The marsh was a sinister place, a jumble of slums and sin that crouched, dark and ogrelike, on the bank of the Thames just across from Westminster; few respectable Londoners would ever admit to venturing there. It was a robustly violent part of town as well--the footpad lurked in Lambeth, there had once been an outbreak of garroting, and in every crowded alley were the roughest kinds of pickpocket. Fagin, Bill Sikes, and Oliver Twist would have all seemed quite at home in Victorian Lambeth: This was Dickensian London writ large.
But it was not a place for men with guns. The armed criminal was a phenomenon little known in the Lambeth of Prime Minister Gladstone's day, and even less known in the entire metropolitan vastness of London. Guns were costly, cumbersome, difficult to use, hard to conceal. Then, as still today, the use of a firearm in the commission of a crime was thought of as somehow a very un-British act--and as something to be written about and recorded as a rarity. "Happily," proclaimed a smug editorial in Lambeth's weekly newspaper, "we in this country have no experience of the crime of 'shooting down,' so common in the United States."
So when a brief fusillade of three revolver shots rang out shortly after two o'clock on the moonlit Saturday morning of February 17, 1872, the sound was unimagined, unprecedented, and shocking. The three cracks--perhaps there were four--were loud, very loud, and they echoed through the cold and smokily damp night air. They were heard--and, considering their rarity, just by chance instantly recognized--by a keen young police constable named Henry Tarrant, then attached to the Southwark Constabulary's L Division.
The clocks had only recently struck two, his notes said later; he was performing with routine languor the duties of the graveyard shift, walking slowly beneath the viaduct arches beside Waterloo Railway Station, rattling the locks of the shops and cursing the bone-numbing chill.
When he heard the shots, Tarrant blew his whistle to alert any colleagues who (he hoped) might be on patrol nearby, and he began to run. Within seconds he had raced through the warren of mean and slippery lanes that made up what in those days was still called a village, and had emerged into the wide riverside swath of Belvedere Road, from whence he was certain the sounds had come.
Another policeman, Henry Burton, who had heard the piercing whistle, as had a third, William Ward, rushed to the scene. According to Burton's notes, he dashed toward the echoing sound and came across his colleague Tarrant, who was by then holding a man, as if arresting him. "Quick!" cried Tarrant. "Go to the road--a man has been shot!" Burton and Ward raced toward Belvedere Road and within seconds found the unmoving body of a dying man. They fell to their knees, and onlookers noted they had cast off their helmets and gloves and were hunched over the victim.
There was blood gushing onto the pavement--blood staining a spot that would for many months afterward be described in London's more dramatically minded papers as the location of a heinous crime, a terrible event, an atrocious occurrence, a vile murder.
The Lambeth Tragedy, the papers eventually settled upon calling it--as if the simple existence of Lambeth itself were not something of a tragedy. Yet this was a most unusual event, even by the diminished standards of the marsh dwellers. For though the place where the killing occurred had over the years been witness to many strange events, the kind eagerly chronicled in the penny dreadfuls, this particular drama was to trigger a chain of consequences that was quite without precedent. And while some aspects of this crime and its aftermath would turn out to be sad and barely believable, not all of them, as this account will show, were to be wholly tragic. Far from it, indeed.

What People are saying about this

William Safire
"The Professor and the Madman...is the linguistic detective story of the decade.... Winchester does a superb job of historical research that should entice readers even more interested in deeds than words."
David Walton
"elegant and scrupulous"
Oliver Sacks, M.D.
I found The Professor and the Madman both enthralling and moving, in its brilliant reconstruction of a most improbable event: the major contributions made to the great Oxford English Dictionary by a deeply delusional, incarcerated "madman," and the development of a true friendship between him and the editor of the OED. One sees here the redemptive potential of work and love in even the most deeply, "hopelessly," psychotic."
Lithe Sebesta
Winchester has written a powerful account of the shifting foundations on which meaning is built, and the impoverishment of a language that could not describe or give peace to one of its makers.

Meet the Author

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, The Men Who United the States, The Map That Changed the World, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa, all of which were New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. In 2006, Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He resides in western Massachusetts.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
New York; Massachusetts; Scotland
Date of Birth:
September 28, 1944
Place of Birth:
London, England
Education:
M.A., St. Catherine¿s College, Oxford, 1966
Website:
http://www.simonwinchester.com

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Professor and the Madman 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 103 reviews.
cookiepam More than 1 year ago
I love Winchester's slant on this topic - I was not particularly interested in reading either book - my mother kept bugging me to get them, then she finally got them for me. Of couse, she was right, and I was wrong. I was delighted by Winchester's quirky slant on the history of the OED. I had never heard any of the human stories about the compliation. I will now never be able to pick up an OED without thinking of the people who created it. I am surprised that the Barnes & Noble rating categories do not allow me to rate the book on: research, writing and intellectual stimulation. .... did you know that the OED continues to take submissions for new words, and new uses of words? I think that this is a perfect example of intellectual stimulation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The subject of Winchester¿s book is Sir James A. H. Murray, editor of the 'Oxford English Dictionary,' and Dr. William C. Minor, the American volunteer who worked on the 'O.E.D.' for 20 years while an inmate in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for the criminally insane. I am a New York playwright who, in 1995, completed a full-length drama focusing James Murray and William Minor, called 'The Dictionary,' and whose help Mr. Winchester sought when he was first considering writing his book. 'Winchester mentions me in his Acknowledgments.' There is a serious problem with Winchester¿s book. Mark Rozzo characterizes it perfectly in his 'Washington Post' review of 'The Professor and the Madman': '. . . we¿re never sure when Winchester is cleaving to facts and when he is fictionalizing.' Winchester also missed some significant information in his book. Moreover, there are a number of inaccuracies in 'The Professor and the Madman.' About Minor¿s death Winchester writes, incorrectly, 'There were no obituaries.' An obituary was published in 1921 in 'Yale University Obituary Record of Graduates Deceased During the Year Ending July 1, 1920.' From this obituary one learns that Minor was born in the East Indies that he entered the Yale School of Medicine in 1861 and was graduated in 1863 that he was incarcerated at Broadmoor, transferred to St. Elizabeth¿s in the U.S., and later transferred from St. Elizabeth¿s to The Retreat, in Hartford, where he died on March 26, 1920. The Yale obituary also mentions his brother Alfred. Winchester refers to the lawyer who defended Minor in his murder trial, but does not mention the lawyer¿s name. My research suggests that the person who defended Minor is the same one who defended Oscar Wilde. The man¿s name is Edward Clarke. I am surprised that Winchester did not seize upon this possibility. Winchester theorizes that Minor¿s clinically paranoid dread of the Irish, and of the Fenians in particular, was the result of his experience as a Union Army Surgeon with Irish troops during the Civil War. Winchester neglects the fact that during the years that Minor was stationed in New York 'on Governors Island' the Fenians were, in fact, his real enemy. Minor lived in New York during 1867 and 1868, when the local papers frequently covered events pertaining to the revolutionary movement in Ireland and to activities of the Irish in New York. In March of 1867 the Irish cause held the front page of just about every newspaper every day. It was during the week of March 18 that the expectation of a Fenian attack on Canada, still part of the British Empire at that time, appeared in at least three separate articles in three different papers. News of U.S. troops being moved from New York to the border to thwart the offensive also made headlines. That Minor would have been selected to assist in the battlefield action against the Fenians is not unlikely. This attack never took place however, less than a year before, the Fenians had staged an assault on Canada from New York State. Eight hundred Irishmen crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. They were subsequently defeated by U.S. troops, and about 700 Fenians were arrested. Minor would have known of this. Winchester mentions the American vice-consul-general and quotes a letter of his to the Medical Superintendent of Broadmoor, but neglects to cite his name, which is Joshua Nunn. Winchester also failed to locate a series of twenty-two letters by Joshua Nunn, an important source of information regarding Minor. The letters to Minor¿s family and friends in America contain particulars that conflict with some of Winchester¿s assumptions regarding Minor¿s life at Broadmoor and his relations with his family. Joshua Nunn clearly went beyond the call of duty in his assistance to, and profound concern for, Minor. Nunn was the man who handled all the details of Minor¿s legal situation as well as Minor¿s living conditions at Broadmoor. He was also very involved in the press account
Guest More than 1 year ago
I never realized how much work was needed to make a dictionary or any reference book at all, until I read The Professor and the Madman. This book has a good explanation on how the Oxford English Dictionary, the most complete dictionary of the English language was started. Now that may not make for a very interesting story, but the events that took place, and the people involved with this historical event are interesting. The story is told somewhat slow, and may not make for a very easy read because of it, but the book picks up and becomes much more interesting when you learn more about Dr. Minor and James Murray. The tales of Dr. Minor make for a very interesting story alone. Dr. Minor lived on the island of Ceylon until he was fourteen, when he was sent to live in New England. He went to Yale and became a surgeon, and served at the Battle of Wilderness in 1864 where his mental problems most likely started. At one point he had to brand Irish deserters during the war which contributed to his dementia later in life. After looking at some information Dr. Minor I found one thing that the author left out. At one point in the book the author wonders how Dr. Minor could have had such knowledge on dictionaries, but he contributed to The Great American Dictionary before moving to England to try to recover from his problems. The theme of the book is the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the tale of schizophrenic Dr. Minor and James Murray. I liked reading about the doctor and his problems it was an interesting topic, though Murray¿s wasn¿t as interesting there are several details that make for a good read. The parts about the history of the Dictionary before Minor was involved weren¿t too interesting, but it was somewhat necessary. One other thing that made this hard to read was the fact that it is a very hard book to read if you don¿t have a very big vocabulary. There are a lot of seldom used words for everyday vocabulary, and many I had never heard before. I would recommend this book to anybody who is interested in reading a history of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the impact it had on the time period or just tales of mental problems.
RaineMH More than 1 year ago
Great historical read, a little dry-but once you get over that, the actual content, time line, and drama is captivating.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is hard to make a book about the mundane labor of creating a dictionary very interesting. Winchester does do it. Fascinating story and the author corrects some popular myths about it.
The_hibernators More than 1 year ago
The Professor and the Madman is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the &ldquo;dangerous lunatic&rdquo; that was a major contributor of entries to the dictionary. It was a fascinating narrative&mdash;well told with an interesting and educational topic. I think there were parts where Winchester waxed a bit dramatic or put in theories based upon conjecture rather than fact&hellip;but that is what journalists do, after all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I first starting reading, I expected to be bored but was pleasantly surprised. The book and story flows nicely and kept me engaged after the first few pages. I became intrigued with the organization and the process of compiling the dictionary. Imagine describing and defining every word in the English language using volunteer writers and no computers to organized the process. The story and the relationship between the Professor and the Madman hold it all together. A good read. 2/28/2012
ProfessorBoh More than 1 year ago
An excellent read. If you enjoy Erik Larson's work ("Issac's Storm","Devil In The White City", etc) you will certainly enjoy this. It is history as it should be written; informative, accurate, and entertaining.
doc_rock More than 1 year ago
What a great story. Fact is more often than not, stranger than fiction. Very much enjoyed this story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Everything by Simon Winchester is worth reading. His topics are original, each different from the last, and good value for time spent. Once again, I enjoyed the book very much.
McQuigg More than 1 year ago
I usually think of dictionaries - if I think of them at all - as "just being there". But where did they come from? How did they get written? This book describes the amazing origins of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the men instrumental in its creation. An absolutely fascinating read for anyone interested in words, dictionaries, or just the history of things.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This author is one of the best non-fiction writers. I rarely read non-fiction because it is frequently densely written and boring. This is never the case with Simon Winchester. This book is amazing for anyone who cares about the English language and the original Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The true and stunning story is of a mental patient/prisoner who contributed monumentally to the OED.
nhofley More than 1 year ago
Overall, the book was very interesting. I would have never picked this out for myself to read. But that's the great thing about book clubs, you push yourself to reach out to discover something new. The Professor and the Madman is a very interesting story that in the beginning, is difficult to follow. Why I say this is because, the beginning is about how the dictionary came about. It's own little history, that I found to be very dull and lifeless. It's not until about a quarter of the way through the book that the 'story' really starts. I was hoping that the author was going to go into a little more detail about the letters written between the two main characters and how people felt, who were working on the dictionary, about a volunteer in an insane asylum that was helping with the dictionary. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen and is discussed briefly. The author does do a good job with description of what the characters looked like and what they might have been feeling going through the 'similar' situations they were in. I really liked the comparisons between the two; which offered great discussion within my book club.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The subject of Winchester¿s book is Sir James A. H. Murray, editor of the 'Oxford English Dictionary,' and Dr. William C. Minor, the American volunteer who worked on the 'O.E.D.' for 20 years while an inmate in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for the criminally insane. I am a New York playwright who, in 1995, completed a full-length drama focusing James Murray and William Minor, called 'The Dictionary,' and whose help Mr. Winchester sought when he was first considering writing his book. (Winchester mentions me in his Acknowledgments.) There is a serious problem with Winchester¿s book. Mark Rozzo characterizes it perfectly in his 'Washington Post' review of 'The Professor and the Madman': '. . . we¿re never sure when Winchester is cleaving to facts and when he is fictionalizing.' Winchester also missed some significant information in his book. Moreover, there are a number of inaccuracies in 'The Professor and the Madman.' About Minor¿s death Winchester writes, incorrectly, 'There were no obituaries.' An obituary was published in 1921 in 'Yale University Obituary Record of Graduates Deceased During the Year Ending July 1, 1920.' From this obituary one learns that Minor was born in the East Indies; that he entered the Yale School of Medicine in 1861 and was graduated in 1863; that he was incarcerated at Broadmoor, transferred to St. Elizabeth¿s in the U.S., and later transferred from St. Elizabeth¿s to The Retreat, in Hartford, where he died on March 26, 1920. The Yale obituary also mentions his brother Alfred. Winchester refers to the lawyer who defended Minor in his murder trial, but does not mention the lawyer¿s name. My research suggests that the person who defended Minor is the same one who defended Oscar Wilde. The man¿s name is Edward Clarke. I am surprised that Winchester did not seize upon this possibility. Winchester theorizes that Minor¿s clinically paranoid dread of the Irish, and of the Fenians in particular, was the result of his experience as a Union Army Surgeon with Irish troops during the Civil War. Winchester neglects the fact that during the years that Minor was stationed in New York (on Governors Island) the Fenians were, in fact, his real enemy. Minor lived in New York during 1867 and 1868, when the local papers frequently covered events pertaining to the revolutionary movement in Ireland and to activities of the Irish in New York. In March of 1867 the Irish cause held the front page of just about every newspaper every day. It was during the week of March 18 that the expectation of a Fenian attack on Canada, still part of the British Empire at that time, appeared in at least three separate articles in three different papers. News of U.S. troops being moved from New York to the border to thwart the offensive also made headlines. That Minor would have been selected to assist in the battlefield action against the Fenians is not unlikely. This attack never took place; however, less than a year before, the Fenians had staged an assault on Canada from New York State. Eight hundred Irishmen crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. They were subsequently defeated by U.S. troops, and about 700 Fenians were arrested. Minor would have known of this. Winchester mentions the American vice-consul-general and quotes a letter of his to the Medical Superintendent of Broadmoor, but neglects to cite his name, which is Joshua Nunn. Winchester also failed to locate a series of twenty-two letters by Joshua Nunn, an important source of information regarding Minor. The letters to Minor¿s family and friends in America contain particulars that conflict with some of Winchester¿s assumptions regarding Minor¿s life at Broadmoor and his relations with his family. Joshua Nunn clearly went beyond the call of duty in his assistance to, and profound concern for, Minor. Nunn was the man who handled all the details of Minor¿s legal situation as well as Minor¿s living conditions at Broadmoor. He was also very involved in the press account
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Spoiler Alert! I thought this book was okay. In the beginning it is somewhat interesting as it talks about a murder scene but later it just begins to grow boring as it gives a detailed history on dictionaries. I did not really enjoy this section of the book. In fact, I almost fell asleep trying to get through it. Once the history that led up to this story being told was summarized, the book started to pick up. I found the story more amusing but at the same time there were parts where I just could not stay focused on. Personally I would not read recommend this book as a way to pass time.
Charlottes-son More than 1 year ago
Truly an amazing story. Sensitively written. This engrossing story will also educated me on how the insanity defense is all about. This is two stories merged, first the Professor and his dictionary. The second about this man who shoots a stranger dead in the streets while he was in a psychotic state. How this two stories merge is wonderful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book had a variety of vocabulary and literary techniques that made it a very good read , but inly if thats what eyou'r looking for. I found the book to be slow paced and i fell asleep to it many times, however it was an interesting nstor. It just didnt seem to cut it for me.
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kkw More than 1 year ago
Simon Winchester writes about little nooks and crannies of history that you wouldn't ordinarily think about. This was interesting and entertaining: presented a good picture of the time. Although the little Amazonian fish is supposed to be an urban legend with no known actual cases...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story was good, or could have been, but the author rambled on with so many dictionary definitions that it made it difficult to follow the story and frankly all of the rambling was boring. I love to read and read a lot but this book was way to much work to get through.
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