The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

Synopsis

The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.”

-Synopsis from Goodreads

Review

This book was recommended to me years ago by a University of Arizona professor I took a class with, while earning my MA in Library and Information Science. I’ve owned this used copy for quite a while now and decided it was finally time to read it, especially since I am attempting to read one nonfiction book per month this year.

cover of The professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
Cover image from Goodreads

I had previously read one work by Simon Winchester so I was familiar with his storytelling style. His works are engrossing and his passion truly comes alive on the page. I would highly recommend his books to anyone with an interest in history. No matter what the topic of discussion is, he never fails to make it compelling and exciting.

Now, on to The Professor and the Madman. I should have known going into this book that it wasn’t exactly going to be an uplifting read. By which I mean, when you look back at so much of history, even of the recent past, it isn’t pretty.

The “madman” that is referenced in the title is Dr. C.W. Minor. He was an army surgeon during the Civil War, during which he witnessed such horrors that his behavior afterward became erratic and he was declared to be insane. Winchester spends several chapters detailing Dr. Minor’s life and what his role during the war entailed. As I mentioned above, it wasn’t “pretty” by any means.

Clearly I knew even less about the Civil War than I thought I did (which I am not ashamed to admit because schools very much scrap the surface of so much of American history) and the details shared, particularly those about the men who deserted and what happened when they were caught, were all disturbing to me. Dr. Minor losing his mind afterward made perfect sense to me after reading all of that.

My thought process while reading was that I would get through that portion of the book and move on to what I hoped would be more fun to read about, which was how the Oxford English Dictionary came about. I should have known that would also be rooted in something disturbing. Part of the goal in creating this dictionary was simply that the need was there to have a comprehensive dictionary of words both obscure and common (and eventually, the history of each of those words).

The other reason for its creation was that by the eighteenth century, English was becoming a global language (due to colonization) and it was believed that people should not only learn English but learn it properly. It was believed that the study of language should taken as seriously as science and mathematics, so a “real” dictionary would only help in that goal.

Once I formed the unspoken connection between the dictionary’s creation and English colonialism, it took the wind out of my sails to be honest. But I shouldn’t have been surprised that because so much of English history is rooted in colonialism, it would have also been part of the reason for wanting to create a comprehensive dictionary.

If that is something you can get past and ignore, then I think you will enjoy this book. It honestly put a cloud over the whole topic for me and it wasn’t something I could really overlook.

It took eight years to complete the Oxford English Dictionary and it was largely supported not just due to Dr. Minor but essentially by crowdsourcing from the public. Winchester says:

“Other dictionaries in other languages took longer to make; but none was greater, grander, or had more authority than this. The greatest effort since the invention of printing. The longest sensational serial ever written.”

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

While I’m glad that I finally took the time to read this book, I can’t say it was enjoyable or that it put me in a good mood. I definitely should have researched just a tad more about the topic before diving in. If I had done that, I probably would have left in on my bookshelf to read another time.

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