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The Professor and The Madman [Unknown Binding]

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

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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
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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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
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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5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Footnote to History June 15 2004
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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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 19 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 24 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
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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