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Professor & The Madman [Paperback]

Simon Winchester
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (358 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 19 1999

The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary--and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

 


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Product Description

From Amazon

The compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, 70 years in the making, was an intellectually heroic feat with a twist worthy of the greatest mystery fiction: one of its most valuable contributors was a criminally insane American physician, locked up in an English asylum for murder. British stage actor Simon Jones leads us through this uncommon meeting of minds (the other belonging to self-educated dictionary editor James Murray) at full gallop. Ultimately, it's hard to say which is more remarkable: the facts of this amazingly well-researched story, or the sound of author Simon Winchester's erudite prose. Jones's reading smoothly transports listeners to the 19th century, reminding us why so many brilliant people obsessively set out to catalogue the English language. This unabridged version contains an interview between Winchester and John Simpson, editor of the Oxford dictionary. (Running time: 6.5 hours, 6 cassettes) --Lou Schuler --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.

From Publishers 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. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Peter Matson. BOMC selection.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
I like reading the occasional historical fact (rather than historical fiction) "novelette," and The Professor and the Madman was definitely easy to get through. One can learn much from books like this, particularly the way normal people lived their day-to-day lives in a certain time and place.
A few things I liked about this book:
1. One will assuredly learn a thing or two about the English language, in reading it. You will learn some obsolete words, the origin of some words, and just get a refresher of other, more common words. Each chapter begins with a dictionary entry of a particular word, some very normal words, some more exotic words.
2. The parallel lives of the two main characters are interesting to follow. One feels real emotions for both. There are a few shocking moments in the book, which stand out quite a bit in front of the otherwise fairly tame narrative.
3. I grew up with the Oxford English Dictionary, and I always wondered how they compiled all the words. It was great learning about how they did that.
4. The book covers an array of themes and topics, and a fairly diverse geography. Mental illness, civil war, sexual propriety, crime and punishment, one can learn a little bit about a lot of issues in the reading of Simon Winchester's book.
I wouldn't recommend the book to just anyone, though. It can be kind of slow, and sometimes one simply grows tired of bouncing back and forth between the two main characters. It is also fairly short; one sort of wishes for more detail on certain events. In some places, the book reads like a crime/detective novel from the 19th century, in others it is more like a biography. It sort of skips around from one style to the next, almost as if different parts were written at very different times by an author in very different states of mind. Overall, though, this book is a nice, quick read, a good plot, and you will learn a thing or two from it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Professor and the Madman Sept. 9 2011
By Louise
Format:Paperback
This book is an 'easy' read. However, it's content is not what one might expect! I found the book quite fascinating and, at the same time learned a lot, amongst other important issues, about American history during the civil war.
The two main characters definitely left a lasting legacy! Who would have thought that, the creation of the Oxford Dictionary would involve such people of different backgrounds and, personal history.

This book stands out as one one should read!

Helga Sarkar
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Footnote to History June 15 2004
Format:Paperback
Simon Winchester has written a very unusual book about a very strange series of events during the last century and the dawn of this one. First, we have various literary authorities in England deciding to compile and edit a massive dictionary (eventually it became the Oxford English Dictionary), which took 70 years to finish and filled multiple volumes. Then we have the editor of the project for most of its life discovering that one of his most valuable contributors was in a lunatic asylum because he murdered someone. The story goes from there.
Winchester is a good writer, and he milks this story for everything it's worth. He spends a good deal of time talking about side issues, as is common with this sort of slice-of-life thing. He does a very good job with them, as far as I can tell. I'm pretty knowledgeable with regards to the American Civil War; the author must tell you of the Battle of the Wilderness to explain how the murderer went mad, and he does so skilfully. The writing of the OED and its contents are intelligently discussed and dissected, and the history of dictionaries themselves was fascinating. The other characters, namely the editor of the dictionary itself, James Murray, are interesting and well-drawn.
I enjoyed this book a great deal. It is short, but it's fascinating, and I would recommend it pretty much universally.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Triumph through tragedy April 16 2004
By RCM
Format:Paperback
While the title and subtitle might grab one's attention, the fact that this book is about the compiling of the Oxford English Dictionary might seem like a dry topic. However, Simon Winchester's book is an extremely well-written and researched portrayal of little-known history. "The Professor and the Madman" is an engaging read that draws its readers into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and therefore into a time when dictionaries were scarce - a fact that is unfathomable today.
Winchester begins his tale by setting up the "madman" character, Dr. W.C. Minor, an American in London, who winds up in an asylum for committing murder. He then transfers to set up the character of Professor James Murray, the man who would be chief editor of the dictionary's progress for several decades. The narrative alternates between these two men's lives, until they finally meet through the work of compiling the millions of words that make up the English language. Dr. Minor, although insane, contributed largely to the formation of the dictionary - a labor of love, as it turns out, for both men. Their stories are interspersed with the history of certain words and the attempts at previous dictionaries, all of which set out to record the majesty of the English language.
Winchester's portrayal of these two men and the dictionary that consumed much of their life is fascinating. As I mentioned earlier, it seems strange to think that a book about a dictionary wouldn't be dry; yet Winchester tells this extraordinary tale with intelligence, wit, and tenderness which captures the tragedy of Dr. Minor's confined life. As well as recounting Minor's impeccable and invaluable work for the dictionary, he recounts the struggles that haunted Minor throughout his imprisonment, and indeed his life. Winchester's book is a true testament to the power of words, as well as the ever-mysterious workings of the human mind.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book
I will never take a dictionary for granted again! The incredible dedication of these people to catalogue the English language was beyond amazing. Read more
Published 2 months ago by nicole grant
5.0 out of 5 stars When you think, you read it all something new pops up.
The book is well balanced between the history of the OED and the life and times of Dr. William Minor, (a major contributor). Read more
Published 10 months ago by bernie
3.0 out of 5 stars Good story, poor writing
Interesting story, unfortunately mishandled by the author. A book on the makings of the OED deserves better. Read more
Published 13 months ago by CFB
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read
Enjoyed reading this book. Well written, and very interesting. Certainly proves that the truth can be stranger than fiction. Will be reading more from this author.
Published 18 months ago by John A.
5.0 out of 5 stars A literary accomplishment that presents the origin of the Oxford...
The Professor & the Madman is both captivating and informative. The conception of the Oxford English Dictionary is an unparalleled testament of hardship and one man's redemption... Read more
Published 23 months ago by JSB
4.0 out of 5 stars Very entertaining
I like Winchester's style of writing. He is able to take some very focused, sometimes obscure, historical subjects and relate them in a way that is both entertaining and... Read more
Published on Oct. 29 2010 by C. J. Thompson
5.0 out of 5 stars When you think, you read it all something new pops up.
The book is well balanced between the history of the OED and the life and times of Dr. William Minor, (a major contributor). Read more
Published on July 28 2010 by bernie
5.0 out of 5 stars The Genius Behind the Modern Dictionary
Here is another one of those great Winchester-style historical stories that proves that improbable ideas often happen when obsessively brilliant people come together on a mission... Read more
Published on July 3 2008 by Ian Gordon Malcomson
4.0 out of 5 stars Sensationalized Version of a Gripping History
The Professor and the Madman is the yellow journalism version of the history of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Sir James Murray, Dr. Read more
Published on Aug. 13 2007 by Donald Mitchell
5.0 out of 5 stars When you think you read it all something new pops up.
The book is well balanced between the history of the OED and the life and times of Dr. William Minor, (a major contributor). Read more
Published on Aug. 30 2006 by bernie
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