Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman is a very unlikely book. Part biography, part intellectual study, part history, it is the the tale of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

As a Lit major in college, the OED was almost my Bible. It was the one tool that could bring understanding to Chaucer, Milton, the Romantics and even the course descriptions in the school catalog. It is one of the greatest intellectual accomplishments of the English language.

But this book is much more than an intellectual study. It takes a historian's careful look at Victorian culture, life and events. Winchester brings the period alive for the reader by presenting both the broad view and intimate detail of life.

But the most intriguing part of the book is the biography. Dr. William Minor was an American Physician. Unfortunately, Dr. Minor suffered from paranoid delusions and other psychological difficulties that led him to murder a stranger in London. He was declared not guilty due to reason of insanity and placed for life into comfortable rooms at Broadmoor, England's asylum for the criminally insane. Professor James Murray was an English academic, tasked with the creation of a complete dictionary of the English language. He took this job very seriously and enlisted hundreds of volunteers to help with the grunt work. Dr. Minor was one of those volunteers who was, arguably, the greatest contributor to the OED. The catch is that for the decades of Dr. Minor's contributions, Prof. Murray didn't realize that Dr. Minor was a "lunatic."

The Professor and the Madman is a wonderfully engaging tale well told.

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