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The Professor And The Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary [Paperback]

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

June 23 2005

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 began in 1857, it 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.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.


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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 The Genius Behind the Modern Dictionary July 3 2008
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
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 to change the world around them. In this particular work, Simon Winchester, a prominent British biographer, provides a very colorful description of what one of those unlikely ideas was - the compilation of the modern Oxford dictionary - and who the cast of illustrious movers and shakers(the Group of 40) was that made it happen. Up until the mid-1800s, work on a comprehensive English dictionary had gone nowehere. It was either too big a task for the resources at hand or not lucrative enough to attract the big publishers of the day. This story is a compilation of the adventurous, the infamous, the heroic, and the downright bizarre. For this project to happen, certain factors had to make their presence felt: the sudden expansion of the English language through the rapid growth of the British Empire and the personal passion of gifted people to see it through. On this second score, how would anyone in their right mind ever conceive of a medical doctor(Minor) doing a life sentence at Bradmoor Asylum for murder linking up with a linguistics professor(Murray) to spearhead the development of the world's most exhaustive and authoritative lexicon. Of the two, it is Dr. Minor, the certified lunatic, who comes in for the most attention because his path to fame was definitely the one `least traveled'. The reader gets to follow this polymathic character through the life-changing horrors of the American Civil War, his subsquent vagabond travels around England, before his eventual run-in with the law in the back streets of London. It is only when he was locked up in a home for the mentally insane did his true academic brilliance surface. Read more ›
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4.0 out of 5 stars Sensationalized Version of a Gripping History Aug. 13 2007
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
The Professor and the Madman is the yellow journalism version of the history of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Sir James Murray, Dr. William Chester Minor, the treatment of the criminally insane during the Victorian period. I was particularly offended by the overly graphic details of Dr. Minor's self-mutilation (if you don't have a strong stomach, skip that section) and playing up of the fictionalized (and often repeated as fact) version of how Sir James and Dr. Minor first met. If the story weren't so interesting, I would encourage you to avoid the book.

Writing the first edition of the OED took 70 years and employed an unusual organizational method that has since become popular for monumental knowledge tasks -- relying on volunteers to do the bulk of the work of finding quotations that use each word in different ways over time. As someone who has always admired the OED, I enjoyed learning more about the process involved in its development. Unfortunately, that material is scattered throughout the book rather than concentrated where you can find it for a brief read through. The examples are good, however, if the material is needlessly diluted.

Thinking about that monumental effort will give you just the right foundation for appreciating how mental illness can affect parts of one's faculties while leaving others undisturbed, as the paranoid Dr. Minor employed his extensive free time in the Broadmoor Asylum for Criminally Insane and personal wealth to become of the most organized and helpful contributors to the OED.

Dr. Minor's story is the actual focus of the book. Unless you are quite interested in ironies, mental illness, and how the Victorians treated the criminally insane, you will probably find this book has more of Dr. Minor than you really care to know.
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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 3 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 11 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 14 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 20 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 on Sept. 29 2012 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 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
4.0 out of 5 stars interesting story
This is a marvelous book about the Professor, James Murray, the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Madman, Dr. William C. Read more
Published on July 10 2004 by James J. Lippard
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