Summary and book reviews of 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

The Professor and the Madman
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  • Hardcover: Jan 1998,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Jul 2005,
    288 pages.

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Book Summary

Mysterious (mistîe · ries), a. [f. L. mystérium Mysteryi + ous. Cf. F. mystérieux.]
1. Full of or fraught with mystery; wrapt in mystery; hidden from human knowledge or understanding; impossible or difficult to explain, solve, or discover; of obscure origin, nature, or purpose.

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story--a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray's offer was regularly--and mysteriously--refused.

Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor--that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane--and locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history. With riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary.

Chapter 1
The Dead of Night in Lambeth Marsh

Murder (m2.0de0), sb. Forms: a. 1 mor1or, -ur, 3-4 mor1re, 3-4, 6 murthre, 4 myr1er, 4-6 murthir, morther, 5 Sc. murthour, murthyr, 5-6 murthur, 6 mwrther, Sc. morthour, 4-9 (now dial. and Hist. or arch.) murther; b. 3-5 murdre, 4-5 moerdre, 4-6 mordre, 5 moordre, 6 murdur, mourdre, 6- murder. [OE. mor3or neut. (with pl. of masc. form mor1ras) = Goth. maur1r neut.:-OTeut. *mur1rom:-pre-Teut. *mrtro-m, f. root *mer-: mor-: mr- to die, whence L. mori' to die, mors (morti-) death, Gr. mort'j, brot'j mortal,T1. The most heinous kind of criminal homicide; also, an instance of this. In English (also Sc. and U.S.) Law, defined as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought; often more explicitly wilful murder.

In OE. the word could be applied to any homicide that was strongly reprobated (it had also the senses 'great wickedness', 'deadly injury', 'torment'). More strictly, however, it denoted secret murder, which in Germanic...

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Introduction

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took 70 years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story of a friendship -- an account of two remarkable men whose strange 20-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking. Professor James Murray, a former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the brilliant editor of the OED project. Dr. W. C. Minor, a retired American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
Wall Street Journal

Deftly weaves into a narrative full of suspense, pathos and humor.

Book World Washington Post

Brisk and entertaining.

NY Times Book Review

Elegant. . .imaginative. . .One of the strangest modern literary stories.

Publisher's Weekly

With his cheeky way with a tale ('It is a brave and foolhardy and desperate man who will perform an autopeotomy' he writes of Minor's self-mutilation), Winchester celebrates a gloomy life brightened by devotion to a quietly noble, nearly anonymous task.

Time Out (UK)

[Winchester's]. . .casual and engaging prose makes the book appealing to lay readers of general history. . .the author can't seem to stop getting in the way of his story. . .psychological insights are often labored and conjectural. . . .an interesting read on the background of one of the most important books in the English language.

London Times

This is almost my favorite kind of book the work of social and intellectual history which through the oblique treatment of major developments manages to throw unusual light on humankind and its doings... Simon Winchester's effortlessly clear, spare prose is the perfect vehicle for the tale... absolutely riveting.

The Economist

An extraordinary tale. . .a splendid book.

Reader Reviews
Caity

Not Very Good. Especially for kids
I am in 8th grade and my teacher went a little crazy trying to find some GT (gifted and talented) leveled books and she had us read this. It (especially at the beginning) is really boring and has inappropriate parts. I think that this book should be ...   Read More

Elizabeth

Very Interesting
This book is excellent for any word lover, but is a bit stilted and detailed. It was very clever how the author put a page from the dictionary as the beginning of each chapter and the subject of that chapter dealt with the word. From page ...   Read More

Sam

Staying Power
It's a relatively small book, appealing and lackluster simultaneously. You will never forget the mechanics of how the OED was created, you will ruminate endlessly regarding the innovations of a madman, and you will be glad you read the book. ...   Read More

Millie

The Surgeon of Crowthorne
I was fascinated from the first page. In 1978 I treated myself to a complete set of the OED (13 volumes) and have used it ever since and have always been amazed at the wealth of information for every word including the first instance of its use and ...   Read More

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