The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester is a true story that reads like fiction. Read on for our full review.
The Professor and the Madman Synopsis
Hidden within the rituals of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is a fascinating mystery.
Professor James Murray was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was one of the most prolific contributors to the dictionary, sending thousands of neat, hand-written quotations from his home. After numerous refusals from Minor to visit his home in Oxford, Murray set out to find him. It was then that Murray would finally learn the truth about Minor – that, in addition to being a masterly wordsmith, he was also an insane murderer locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.
The Professor and the Madman is the unforgettable story of the madness and genius that contributed to one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters.
Genre: Non-fiction, Historical, Audio
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I rarely read non-fiction for pleasure but this synopsis immediately intrigued me. Regular readers of my blog will be aware of my appreciation of words, their meaning and their usage over history.
In The Professor and the Madman Simon Winchester regales us with a telling of history that reads like fiction.
In the audio version the immense passion Winchester conveys for his research on this important piece of history is infectious. I thoroughly enjoyed learning of the strange twists of fate that impacted the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and lovely stories explaining the origins of commonly words used such as ‘serendipity’.
My only criticism is there were a couple of instances where Winchester’s personal enthusiasm for the subject matter led to him labouring a point.
I commend Winchester’s handling of the subject matter of mental illness with both objectivity and sensitivity. The highlight for me was the story’s underlying positivity and the author’s honest and overwhelming appreciation of the important contribution Murray and Minor’s special relationship had on the lives of others.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5
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More reviews of The Professor and The Madman
“The Professor and the Madman…is the linguistic detective story of the decade…. Winchester does a superb job of historical research that should entice readers even more interested in deeds than words.”–William Safire, New York Times Magazine
“Winchester combines a reporter’s eye for detail with a historian’s sense of scale. His writing is droll and eloquent.”–USA Today
“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.”–Kirkus Reviews (starred)
About the Author, Simon Winchester
Simon Winchester is the author of The Professor and the Madman, The Map That Changed the World, and Krakatoa, among many other titles. He lives in Massachusetts, New York City, and the Western Isles of Scotland.