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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of…
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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making… (1998)

by Simon Winchester

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Dr. W. C. Minor, whose story is at the center of Simon Winchester's The Professor and The Madman, is "crazy". From the symptoms that are described in the book, he would most likely today be classified as a paranoid schizophrenic. An intelligent and sophisticated man, he was a surgeon and a member of the Union Army during the Civil War before he moved to the UK and his delusions of being tormented in his sleep led him to fatally shoot an innocent man. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a British asylum for most of the rest of his life. But he didn't stop being an educated man solely by virtue of his condition, and with his endless spare time he got himself involved in a one-of-a-kind project: the Oxford English Dictionary.

Winchester weaves together the tale of Dr. Minor and the history of dictionaries leading up to the creation of the OED. English is a language quite different than many of the other European ones in the way it has grown explosively and liberally borrowed from others, and for quite a long time there was no real attempt to catalog it: a few volumes that sought to define the most unusual words existed, but an actual dictionary of ALL the words with ALL their meanings didn't really happen until the OED. It took decades of work and thousands of volunteers to develop the dictionary, and Minor's contribution thereto was significant indeed...enough to merit a dedication in the finished product even.

Dr. Minor was seriously ill and a criminal at that, but we should know by now that these things do not per se mean that someone is incapable of being a productive member of society. That being said, there is a shock value there: we don't usually think of murderers as the kind of people who wind up knee-deep in dictionary development. Winchester chooses to emphasize Minor's humanity rather than sensationalize his crime, taking us through his life as the son of missionaries in Sri Lanka (there's an odd bit of colonialism where Winchester is weirdly attached to the British name of Ceylon) through the horrors he would have seen as a medical professional in the Civil War and his subsequent mental decline, leading down to his crime and its punishment, and then wrapping up with his long years in institutional care. Even though because of the time in history, that care consisted mostly of a relatively gentle confinement rather than actual treatment, it still should be enough to remind us that there are probably plenty of people in jail or psychiatric hospitals today who do have something to offer the world.

The book itself is solid but not really exceptional in any way. It's an interesting story and well-told, but it wasn't an especially memorable or special read. For non-fiction readers or people interested in dictionary development, it's definitely a good choice, but I don't know that I'd recommend going out of one's way to read it if this sort of thing doesn't usually do it for you. ( )
1 vote 500books | May 22, 2018 |
When the idea of the Oxford English Dictionary was first proposed it was very clear that it was a mammoth undertaking: every word that existed (or had ever existed) in the English language was to be documented, with quotations illustrating each nuanced meaning that the word might have, and in particular illustrating when the word had first appears in English. It was clear to the newly appointed editor, James Murray, that this task could not be done by paid staff alone: volunteers were sought from all corners of the English speaking world to read the required books and send in quotations. One of those that answers the call was Dr W.C.Minor, an American army surgeon who gave his address only as Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire. These days, at least for a British reader, the name Broadmoor immediately conjures up images of the most notorious criminals, as it’s the best known of the high security psychiatric hospitals in the U.K. In the second half of the nineteenth century, it was the newly built Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, and presumably not as well known, as James Murray and Dr W.C. Minor were in correspondence for some years before Murray realised that Minor was not the retired doctor with time on his hands that he had always supposed. The truth was that Minor had been committed to Broadmoor after shooting a man in London: in a celebrated trial he had been found not guilty on grounds of insanity (although everyone including himself had been quite clear that he had carried out the shooting), but had been detained ‘at her majesty’s pleasure’ as a danger to the public.

The book outlines Minor’s history and speculates on what had brought him to his reduced state, and also what had brought Murray to his rather more exalted one. To be honest, I could have done with a little more of Murray’s story. As the son of a Scottish draper he certainly wouldn’t have been expected to have ended up as Sir James Murray, and the most famous editor of what proved to be one of the most monumental accomplishments in the English language. It’s an interesting story, but I wasn’t overly enamoured of Simon Winchester’s telling of it, although I did find the mechanics of the compilation of the dictionary fascinating. He’s very much of the school of writing that thinks if one sentence is good, five sentences will be better. It’s not what you call concise. And male readers should be warned, there’s a bit in the middle that you might find a little bit upsetting ... ( )
  SandDune | May 5, 2018 |
The story of writing a dictionary was made romantic in this novel. Romantic and mad. The ritual of a mad man made Dr. Minor a unique patient. I was amazed by Dr. Minor's ability to remain lucid while working on the Oxford dictionary. The mind is fascinating and this book is a testament to that fact. I highly recommend the audio version read by the author, Simon Winchester. ( )
  godmotherx5 | Apr 5, 2018 |
Short but interesting about the creation of the OED and one of its major contributors who was locked up with mental illness. Fascinating story - don't think I have the patience for dictionary creation though! ( )
  infjsarah | Apr 2, 2018 |
Overall a good look at the history of English dictionaries in general, and a profile of the lives of Dr. Minor and James Murray. I did drop this a star because of commentary towards the end as to whether Dr. Minor being properly treated for his mental illness would have prevented his working on the dictionary, and thus would have been a loss to English language as a whole. Nonsense. He liked words, and all his institutionalization did was provide him with nothing else to do, so he contributed more. I strenuously object to the idea that mental illness is something that sparks creativity (think of all the, "art is suffering" people). His work on the dictionary wasn't hampered by his delusions, therefore the only thing we can conclude is that he would probably have gotten a fair amount of research done in his free time had he received adequate treatment for his illness. ( )
  Dez.dono | Mar 27, 2018 |
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Here, as so consistently throughout, Winchester finds exactly the right tool to frame the scene.
added by John_Vaughan | editPowells, Dave Weich (Oct 1, 2001)
 

» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Simon Winchesterprimary authorall editionscalculated
Pracher, RickCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Dedication
To the memory of
G. M.
First words
Popular myth has it that one of the most remarkable conversations in modern literary history took place on a cool and misty late autumn in 1896, in the small village of Crowthorne in the county of Berkshire.
Quotations
One word --and only one word-- was ever actually lost: bondmaid, which appears in Johnson's dictionary, was actually lost by Murray and was found, a stray without a home, long after the fascicle Battentlie - Bozzom had been published. It, and tens of thousands of words that had evolved or appeared during the forty-four years spent assembling the fascicles and their [twelve] parent volumes, appeared in a supplement, which came out in 1933. Four further supplements appeared between 1972 and 1986. In 1989, using the new abilities of the computer, Oxford University Press issued its fully integrated second edition, incorporating all the changes and additions of the supplements in twenty rather more slender volumes. [220]
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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UK title: The Surgeon of Crowthorne
US title: The Professor and the Madman
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Book description
A wonderful story...It has all the ingredients of one of Patrick McGrath's icily stylish novels: madness, violence, arcane obsessions, weird learning, ghastly comedy - John Banville, Literary Review

Two distinguished-looking Victorians, both learned and serious, yet from very different worlds: one a brilliant polymath, the other a madman and a murderer.

Dr James Murray, erudite and pious, who broke free from an impoverished childhood to become a towering figure of British scholarship and editor of the great Oxford English Dictionary.

Dr W.C. Minor, lascivious, charismatic, a millionaire American Civil War surgeon and homicidal lunatic. Confined to Broadmoor Asylum he pursued his passion for words and became one of the OED's most valued contributors.

Their lives and unlikely friendship are unravelled in Simon Winchester's classic work of detection.

In this elegant book the writer has created a vivid parable, in the spirit of Nabakov and Borges - full of suspense, pathos and humour - Wall Street Journal

A jewel of a book, scholarly, beguiling and moving - as gripping as any thriller - Scotland on Sunday

A cracking read - Spectator
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060839783, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:04 -0400)

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Looks at the making of the Oxford English dictionary.

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140271287, 0141037717

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