Wednesday, April 01, 2009


Welcome to the April 1 Book Club Meeting! Today, by popular demand, we have Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, which was a bestseller when it first came out in the United Kingdom in 1998 and the United States in 1999.

The story centers on two protagonists (for etymologists out here, I'm not going to get into a debate about whether it's possible to even have two protagonists in a story; we'll have to take that up later).

The first, Professor James Murray, was the brains and brawn behind the Oxford English Dictionary. He sat at the head of the dictionary's organizational committee for decades, and was not unlike certain other publishing professionals I know who can't stop taking work home and manage to alienate and annoy their friends and family because they simply don't know how to say when. His thoroughness and commitment are a large part of why the OED is the nearly comprehensive monolith it is today.

The second character is the eponymous madman: Dr. W.C. Minor, an American and a former army surgeon during the Civil War. A paranoid intellectual who was probably schizophrenic, Dr. Minor eventually got too neurotic for the US Army, and was allowed to escape to England, where he murdered a man for no particular reason and ended up in a lunatic asylum for the rest of his life. The thing about lunatic asylums is that they turn out to be very conveniently peaceful places to do nothing but sit and meticulously catalog every word in the English language.

Thus through a flier requesting volunteers to help with the dictionary entries were the two men brought together. Their correspondence and, eventually, strange friendship would continue over twenty years.

I won't say anymore now. Let me know your thoughts!


Diane T said...

I read this a few years back (while I was living in England, actually) and found it utterly fascinating. Living in today's digital world, it's almost impossible to imagine the amount of effort that went into organizing and creating the first OED, but Winchester does a great job of describing it. (All those slips of paper and cubbyholes!)

I'm a total word nerd (and former reference book editor), so the story of the OED alone might have been enough to suck me in, but then Winchester brings all these characters to life--not just Murray and Minor, but other peculiar individuals who contributed to the effort. Minor's problems sustaining university backing are interesting as well. If you have any curiosity at all about words, I think you'd love this book.

I_am_Tulsa said...

My yellowed and fairly battered edition of this book was in my “recycle bin” stack. Since I couldn’t remember the details of why I was considering to “let go” of this book, I read through it again. (It will not be going into my recycle bin after all!)

The book’s topic is intriguing without a doubt and the style of writing is concise and captivating.

However, I found that certain chapters where a pain to read.
For example, in chapter 2 Winchester says that there are “two protagonists” and then goes on to explain the word instead of the two characters. By the time he was done with the word “protagonist” I was forgetting why I started to read the book…

Chapter 3 was similar to the second….going back and forth between Murray and Minor and the island Minor was born on etc, to me, could have been formatted differently for a “better flow”.

Chapter 9 “The Meeting of Minds” was similarly confusing.

I really liked the “story” it was fascinating to learn how the OED came to be etc. There were many parts in the book that were beautifully written and easy for a pea brain like me to understand (and even get excited over)….but still…those 3 chapters “haunt me”.

moonrat said...

Yeah, the whole "curiosity" angle was definetly charming for me. I love the whole English tongue-in-cheek approach. For example, on page 166 where Winchester describes the "furious dispute" between two random Sanskrit scholars: "linguists and philologists were known to be mercurial and hold eternal grudges." Heehee. Hits my funnybone for some reason. Or the discussion on page 80 about why Shakespeare, master wordsmith, might not have known the difference between an elephant and an emu. Also somehow very humorous.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I'm still not quite done, but I enjoyed (am enjoying) this book. The author did an amazing job fiding the right characters to tell this nonfiction story about language -- proof that any passion can be a fascinating subject.

I loved learning about the O.E.D., and this book made we want to OWN the whole thing. (Not an online version. I want the physical books, so I can dip in and out at will.) This would also require the addition of more bookshelves and maybe even another room in my house. So... maybe not this decade.

I just popped over to and they have an RSS feed that delivers a new word a day to you. An online oed is less than $300, but I'd like the $975 20-volume physical set -- a little old and dusty, preferably.

Diane mentioned today's "digital world" and it is amazing to compare the info-harnessing power of the internet with past (often more romantic) methods for harnessing that info. Another very slim and readable book I loved along these lines was "The Talmud and the Internet" by Jonathan Rosen. If you're Jewish (or interested in the Talmud) check it out. Rosen makes the Talmud sound like wikipedia -- updateable, a place for debate, as well as a "virtual home." (He says it all better, of course.) The Talmud, like the OED, required many voices and intellects in collaboration.

Venus Vaughn said...

This reminds me of another Very Good Book I read last year. It's called Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea.

Because of his great love of dictionaries and words he undertakes to read the entire OED in the course of a year, and takes us on the perilous journey with him.

Talk about voice? This dude had it in spades. Plus you get to learn lots of wonderful new words (most of which I promptly forgot upon closing the book. Except for the word "unbepissed" which I am pleased to say pertains to most everything in my life.)

I would imagine it's a great companion piece to this book.

moonrat said...

oh hey! i want to read that. i mean, the book about the man who read the OED, not the OED itself.

Venus Vaughn said...

Do it. Do it. Do it!
Tell me if you liked it.

BuffySquirrel said...

I'm about twenty years behind on my reading, so I'll let you know what I think in 2019....