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THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN by Simon Winchester

THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN

A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

By Simon Winchester

Pub Date: Sept. 4th, 1998
ISBN: 0-06-017596-6
Publisher: HarperCollins

Remarkably readable, this chronicle of lexicography roams from the great dictionary itself to hidden nooks in the human psyche that sometimes house the motives for murder, the sources for sanity, and the blueprint for creativity. Manchester Guardian journalist Winchester (The River at the Center of the World, 1996; Pacific Rising, 1991) turns from Asia toward that most British of topics: the Oxford English Dictionary. His account is studded with odd persons and unexpected drama. To wit: When O.E.D. editor Professor James Murray headed off to meet a major contributor (of more than 10,000 entries) to his epochal reference work, he discovered that this distinguished philologist, Dr. William Chester Minor, was incarcerated for life in an asylum for the criminally insane. Minor, apparently a paranoiac killer, had committed murder in 1872; to his lasting travail, he—d witnessed atrocities in the American Civil War. Latterly ailing (and sexually repressed), he clung to his lexicographic efforts for dear life and the sake of his sanity—or what remained of it. —All those Dictionary slips,— opines Winchester, —were [Minor’s] medication, [and] became his therapy.— When he describes the original O.E.D.’s “twelve tombstone-sized volumes,” we get a whiff of the grueling mental task exacted from its servants by the work, reminiscent of the labors involved in Melville’s classic “Bartleby the Scrivener”—in a book that is similarly a psychological masterwork. In praising the achievement of the work, Winchester rejoices, “It wears its status with a magisterial self-assurance, not least by giving its half million definitions a robustly Victorian certitude of tone.” Winchester’s own tone and his prose are wonderfully Victorian, an apt mirror for his subject. The author begins each chapter with an entry from the original O.E.D. as an appropriate heading, such as “murder,” “lunatic,” “polymath” (“a person of much or varied learning”) and, eventually, “acknowledgment.” First-rate writing: well-crafted, incisive, abundantly playful. (b&w photos, not seen) (Book- of-the-Month Club selection)