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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 by Simon Winchester X
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
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  • First Published:
    Jan 1998, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2005, 288 pages

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There are currently 13 reader reviews for The Professor and the Madman
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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 changes in the spelling, but gave no thought to the editor or compilers. What a delight to read, not only a history of the project but the compelling tale of the sad, brilliant, flawed mind of one of its chief contributors and his journey from America to Broadmoor. My copy of the book was published under the title above and the subtitle is 'A Tale of Murder, Madness and The Oxford English Dictionary' I loved it, will read it again and have recommended it to my book group.
eliendriel

Who Knew the Dictionary Could be So Much Fun?
I read this book on a whim, and could not put it down. If you liked the style of "Manhunt," or "Devil in the White City," then you'll love this book. The author takes the historical development of the Oxford English Dictionary, focuses the sub-story on one incredibly unique and interesting event in the dictionary's creation, and spins a true tale that is engrossing and enlightening. I had no idea that a dictionary could be so exciting!
Highly recommended to anyone looking for a good, intellectual read.
Mike H

An excellently written account of the making of the OED and the lives of Dr. Murray and Dr. Minor. Some criticize the book for being too simple at times, overly-exaggerated, or boring. However, a book about the dictionary and the characters behind its making is not suitable for all crowds. Also, this book is everything it was intended to be: a quick, easy read that captivates the reader's mind in an interesting story while informing the reader of the making of the OED. Not a masterpiece, but it is definetely a must read for philologists and those who like quick reads. However, note that it isn't a fact-ridden account (some people seemed to have wanted the book to be a boring biography).
WLC

The Professor and the Madman captivates me for several reasons. Winchester provides an adaquate analysis of how the OED generated its own knowledge, how knowledge was (and is) constructed in particular ways that are and are not so ordered. That Winchester neither condemns nor condones Minor's mental health is very much in line with current scholarship about what constitutes pyschosis (Anglo and American models) as an experience that is socially constructed, has its own phenomenlogical structuring, epistemlogical ordering, and is certainly inflected by gendered norms and norms of sexuality that Minor experiences throughout his life.

Winchester doesn't imply he is reading Minor or the aslyum from any lense of scholarship, just that he is telling a tale, yet he does very much account for Minor and his productivity in ways that are helpful in further understanding how order, containment, surveillance (and other such $5 terms of critical analyses) play a part in sustaining and maintaining the minds of those whose (for better and for worse) biochemistry is differently balanced.
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.

You will not gravitate to the edge or your seat or stay awake nights reading it. But, you will not forget it.
Brian

The Professor and the Madman is the well written, yet slanted telling of the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. Using Mr. Minor's oscillation between the anal quest for literary perfection and paranoid delusion, the author uses excellent vocabulary and syntax to discuss the development of the greatest chronicle of the English language. A must read for any student of philology
Power Reviewer
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 220..."The total length of type--all hand-set, for the books were done by letterpress, still discernible in the delicately impressed feel of the inked-on paper--is 178 miles, the distance between London and the outskirts of Manchester."

Dr. Minor, the madman, was an interesting character and the perfect person to "write" the English Oxford Dictionary...the professor, (Professor Murray) was perfect as well. You feel sorry for Dr. Minor in his circumstances, but rejoice at what he did.

His death and burial are described as this: From Page 219..."Dr. William Minor, who was among the greatest of contributors to the finest dictionary in all the English language, died forgotten in obscurity, and is buried beside a slum."

It isn't of high interest, but keeps you reading because of the history.

I was wavering between a 2 and a 3 but am going with a 3/5 rating.
Kim

I enjoyed the book but found it to be a little "slow" at times. I read all English history I can find, no matter what the topic, and was excited to find this book. However, I personally would have enjoyed more information about the interaction between Minor and Murray, Minor's day to day life, more about his regression into madness. Perhaps little is known about these items, but I found myself wanting more after I finished the book.
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