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The Professor and The Madman Unknown Binding – 1999

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Product Details

  • Unknown Binding
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial 1999 (1999)
  • ASIN: B0039RZWAY
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (360 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,140,555 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars

Most helpful customer reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By William Franklin Jr. on July 3 2004
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 By Louise on Sept. 9 2011
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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By C. J. Thompson TOP 1000 REVIEWER on Oct. 29 2010
Format: Paperback
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 informative. This particular work is the second of two books he has written about the creation of the 'Oxford English Dictionary'. The first is The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary which is a broad look at the dictionary's history, with special focus on the most prominent editor, Professor James Murray. Professor Murray is, of course, the same professor as in the 'Professor and the Madman' wherein the (much narrower) focus of the tale is the one Dr W.C. Minor, the lunatic murderer who was such a prolific contributor to the OED project.

On the whole, I preferred this book (which actually was written earlier than the other, as I learned to my surprise). It is much lighter in tone than the later work and I found my sympathies engaged by the tragic history of the poor Doctor more so than I did the treatment of Murray (who, admittedly, is really only a subordinate 'character' to the dictionary itself). Having said that, though, I have to acknowledge that I probably would not have enjoyed reading about Minor's story quite as much had I not read 'The Meaning Everything' first. I think it would be much harder to appreciate Minor's contribution to the OED without the much more detailed account of just how the dictionary was compiled that the later book provides.

It is, just possibly, a bit of a shame that Winchester could not have written the history of the three characters (the OED, Murray and Minor) in one comprehensive volume.
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By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWER on July 3 2008
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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