Purchase The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary from Amazon.com
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
by Simon Winchester
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Reviewed by: David Smillie
It is, on occasion, difficult to explain exactly why certain books affect us so strongly. Take The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. At it's heart, this is a tale of how one of the greatest books in history, the Oxford English Dictionary came to be.
Sounds pretty dull, right? But it's also the tale of a disillusioned, insane Civil War veteran and murderer who somehow came to be one of the most important figures in the writing of that book. Interested yet?
W.C. Minor was a sensitive soul from a wealthy family who seems to have "snapped", following his experiences in the American Civil War. Heading to Britain to escape his inner demons, he killed an innocent bystander and ended up in an institution. Which should be the end of his story.
But it's just the beginning. Because working from the questionable comfort of the Broadmoor Asylum, Minor began a correspondence that led to his becoming the most important contributor to the OED.
But as I say, it's tough to explain exactly why I found this book so damn compelling. It's well-written, and a fascinating look not only at the time, but also at the main characters. But I couldn't put this book down. Something in it ... the love of language ... the hopelessly flawed characters ... the possibility of finding redemption, even after descending into madness ... struck a chord deep within me.
It's a narrative filled with suspense and humour. And it's all true. No matter how unlikely the whole process seems, it actually happened. It boggles the mind, but there it is. That said, this probably isn't a book for everyone. If you're a lover of words and books, a history buff or an Anglophile, you'll love this book.
If you're looking for a Tom Clancy novel, pass on by. But if you're looking for something that will move you and make you muse ... this is it.
Purchase The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary from Amazon.com.