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The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon…

The Surgeon of Crowthorne (original 1998; edition 2008)

by Simon Winchester

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8,200187382 (3.8)317
Title:The Surgeon of Crowthorne
Authors:Simon Winchester
Info:Penguin (2008), Edition: export ed, Paperback, 224 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:nonfiction, england, oed, language, biography

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The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (1998)

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Who’d believe this story if you’d just heard it from a friend: one of the biggest contributors to the huge Oxford English Dictionary was an inmate in an asylum for the insane.

Simon Winchester tells the tale and shares lots of fun words from the OED in the process. A great nonfiction story. ( )
  debnance | Sep 27, 2015 |
Author Simon Winchester, a self-described adventurer, takes what could otherwise seem lexicographical drudgery, the 70 plus year making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and turns it into a relatively compact fascinating story about this massive undertaking and the men (and women) behind it. He weaves the broader story about cataloging the English language with a more narrow tale about the Professor (the editor James Murray) with the Madman (major contributor William Minor, an American doctor, Civil War Veteran, murderer, and schizophrenic). This book works on multiple levels. It is at once a great narrative about the massive etymological study of our native language and a fascinating and strange story of great, though in the case of Minor extremely disturbed, men. The story is at once tragic and triumphant, one of great accomplishment and personal tragedy. Winchester takes a topic that looks like it could weigh you down and indeed turns it into a bit of an intellectual adventure. ( )
  OccassionalRead | Jul 30, 2015 |
The professor of the title is James Murray, who organized and oversaw the writing of the OED (or much of it anyway, he did not live to see it completed), and the "madman" is W.C. Minor, an American army surgeon incarcerated in an English asylum for the insane, who contributed prodigious research to the OED as it was being written. For me the most fascinating bits of the book (by far) were those about the compiling of the OED itself--of how Murray and co. went about finding words, cataloging them, pinning down earliest usages. I would have happily read in more detail about that and about the difficulties (alluded to by Winchester) that certain words caused. That Minor contributed so thoroughly (the amount of work he did is impressive, but so is the amount of work that anyone did on the OED) while institutionalized, that he could be both so sick (he was most likely what we'd call today schizophrenic) and so productive at the same time, strikes me as a footnote to the story--a fascinating one, certainly, and one worth a few pages to flesh out and bring home the scale of the thing, but a footnote still. I wasn't wowed by Winchester's writing or his telling of the story, so perhaps the issue lies there rather than with the story itself. A disappointing read for me. ( )
  lycomayflower | Jun 2, 2015 |
A tale of murder, madness and The Oxford English Dictionary: such is the full title of Simon Winchester’s intriguingly titled ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’, a book all about, well, murder, madness and the OED, though there’s more on the latter than the former.

What’s it about?

Lexicographer James Murray is attempting to compile the first OED, a vast undertaking that eventually consumes 70 years and is not completed until 12 years after his death. During this struggle, Murray communicates extensively with many keen contributors, but builds a particular friendship with one: Dr William Minor of Crowthorne. As well as being a star contributor to the important dictionary, Minor is a lunatic, consigned to stay indefinitely at Broodmoor lunatic asylum after committing a murder.

This is a book partly about their friendship, partly about that murder, but mostly about the making of the mighty OED.

What’s it like?

Detailed, thoughtful and written in such a way that you are drawn into Minor’s affairs with a sympathetic eye.

It’s slow-going as the book has multiple beginnings: an extract from a call for contributors to the dictionary is followed by a preface; the preface briefly outlines the mythology surrounding Murray and Minor’s first meeting and implies this book will offer revelations regarding the truth of that meeting; this is followed by a chapter detailing the life and murder of George Merrett, which of course introduces Minor; this is followed by a chapter outlining James Murray’s early life and the beginning of his involvement with the dictimary; THIS is followed by the murderer’s relevant history until that point; then there is a chapter outlining the very beginnings of the concept of the new dictionary. In short, nearly 90 pages have passed before the story truly gathers steam as some of the key participants (Murray and the dictionary) properly come together.

Such length is not simply the result of having to introduce various characters – including a book! – but is rather due to Winchester’s delight in minor details and speculation. He writes that Minor ‘selected a pen with the very finest nib’ to send his first words to the dictionary. Perhaps. Even probably. And perhaps not. More importantly, he suggests that the view from Minor’s suite at Broodmoor must have meant Minor’s sentence ‘cannot have seemed altogether a nightmare’. Hmm. I’m not sure a good view, even an excellent view, would detract one’s attention too much from the horror of being committed indefinitely to a lunatic asylum in a foreign country. Still, such intimate touches help to bring the characters and the events to life, making potentially very dry material more engaging, though they do sometimes lend the writing a slightly fictional air.

Perhaps appropriately, the ending is also a drawn-out affair with a chapter called ‘Then Only The Monuments’, which is primarily concerned with the deaths of the major characters, followed by a postscript, followed by an author’s note, followed by suggestions for further reading. This, then, is a leisurely read, one which will reward readers with the time and patience to piece together all the relevant details in their minds.

Final thoughts

I had never realised dictionaries took so long to write and found the details Winchester included about the methods used were generally interesting, though I skimmed some of the biographical bits (I don’t much care where Minor or Murray grew up or how many siblings they had) and felt there were more examples of definitions than I particularly cared for. (It seems I am not a lexicographer at heart.)

This will be of most interest to those with a love of words and a love of history, though there is also some interesting discussion about Minor’s illness, finally revealed to be what we would now call schizophrenia. Towards the end of the book in particular Winchester discusses Minor’s illness in broader terms than in the preceding chapters, considering what triggers such mental disorders as schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and how they might be treated differently today.

Overall it’s a pleasant meander through a bit of literary history, replete with imaginative embroiderings at the edges. ( )
  brokenangelkisses | May 15, 2015 |
The Oxford English Dictionary is a amazing achievement, and I don't know how many people ever really stop to consider that. To collect every single word in the English language, compile them, define them, and track their histories, their various forms, their ever-changing meanings and interpretations, is an inconceivably formidable task. Nevertheless, a group of people decided to take it on, and it would take nearly half a century to complete.

I have never really considered what a massive undertaking that must have been. It's funny, how often I have used a dictionary, yet never appreciating the amount of work it took for such a thing to exist. And if that isn't fascinating enough, this book focuses on W. C. Minor, a man who was one of the biggest contributors to the dictionary as a volunteer...and who was also insane, having been convicted of murder during a paranoid delusion. From his room in an insane asylum, he would read obsessively and submit definitions with methodical precision, much to the amazement (and admiration) of the OED team.

The Professor and the Madman has pretty much everything I want in a nonfiction book. It's informing, it's enlightening, it's entertaining, It sheds some light on an untold story, and it will allow me to appreciate something I wouldn't have had I not read it. It's well-written and readable, but for me it had that sense of revelation, opening my eyes to something that now seems terribly important even though I hadn't a clue about it just a week ago. I couldn't ask for much more than that. ( )
2 vote Ape | Mar 5, 2015 |
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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 editionsconfirmed
Pracher, RickCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.
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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UK title: The Surgeon of Crowthorne:a tale of murder, madness and the Oxford English dictionary

US title: The Professor and the Madman
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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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