Sunday, June 21, 2009

the professor and the madman

Simon Winchester. Harper Collins. Published in 1998.

The prompt for writing a quick review of this book is that I just started a third title by the same author, Simon Winchester, The Crack at the Edge of the World, and couldn't help but remember with fondness - yes, I used the word 'fondness' in regard to reading a book about how a dictionary was written - when I read The Professor and the Madman. Winchester is to my knowledge the developer and foremost practitioner of an immensely entertaining historical-narrative literary style whereby he lures us into turning page after page (rapidly) of a history book by telling a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story that reads like pulp fiction, and yes, which is set within a larger historical context and moment. Erik Larson followed the pattern in Devil in the White City , introducing us to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and how it changed the history of America through the lurid tale of a serial killer who was as big as Jack the Ripper before Jack found his first victim. In some parallel ways, Sebastian Junger employed this model, telling us about seemingly mundane things - the deep sea fishing industry, the physics of waves, the types of North Atlantic storms, and a little of the history of Gloucester, Massachusetts - through the sensational story of the crew of the Andrea Gail in his book The Perfect Storm, even better known for the George Clooney movie.

What is the historical setting and importance of the Professor and the Madman? The writing of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), of course. Now, without making any claims of being an academic, I must admit that topic kind of, sort of interested me anyway. I like the history of words and their definitions. But enough to read a book? I'm not sure. Even if it's less than 300 pages? Still not sure. It may never have reached the top of the stack. But even if you aren't that interested in what made the OED the finest reference work of its day - and perhaps the greatest reference ever created - the story of Dr. Charles Minor, the man who contributed thousands of entries, all painstakingly researched and neatly written from his home in Crowthorne, England, just 50 miles from Oxford, just might hook you.

What tied Minor to the OED and made his role so remarkable? Was it that he was an American creating something so peculiarly British? Nope. There was no snobbery as a sub theme. That he was a veteran of the Civil War, where he was surgeon for the troops of the North? Interesting, but not interesting enough to bring a dictionary to life. Was it that he maintained a long distance relationship with Professor James Murray - strictly by correspondence - for decades, despite numerous invitations from Murray to attend fundraising dinners or just stop by the office to meet due to his prolific 10 thousand entries? Not even close. Was it that he thought Irishmen were ... and that one night he went out and ... and because of that he ended up living in ... ? Yes. Yes. And yes.

I don't want to spoil the book for someone wants to know why it took 70 years to create the OED - Murray worked on it for 40 of those years but died before it was released - which contained almost 2 million quotations that helped define more than 400 thousand words. As an aside to those who love words and where they came from, one of the challenges of completing this monumental masterpiece was the stated goal that the OED would provide literary quotations, from oldest to most recent, to illustrate each word's first usage, evolution, and current definitions. Is it any wonder that the publisher had London book sellers place advertising tracts in the books they sold to solicit research help from the general population?

But back to Minor. I guess since I've already let you know that Murray was the professor, it is safe to reveal that Minor was the madman. When Murray finally insisted that he must meet the good doctor face-to-face out of respect for his unequaled contributions to the OED- and yes, if Minor wouldn't leave his home and travel to Oxford, he would come to him - you can imagine the shock he must have felt to show up at the front door and discover Minor was an insane murderer living at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

Who knows? Let this book rise to the top of the stack beside your nightstand and you might be shocked to discover yourself enjoying a scintillating read about the history of a dictionary!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting.. I received this book as a featured QPB selection back in the day and never read it. But it looks like know I'll have to dig it up.