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The Professor and the MadmanReview - The Professor and the Madman
A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
by Simon Winchester
Harper Perennial, 1998
Review by Su Terry
Jul 3rd 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 27)

            This book will be a major surprise and wonderful delight to the reader that finds it. It is hard to imagine that a book about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary might be interesting, but it is! This book has everything from mystery to murder, and includes insanity, war, sex, and just a pinch of dictionary history.

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester is a Sherlockian mystery that spans the globe from prim New England to the wilds of Malaysia to bloody Civil War battlefield and finally to Victorian and Edwardian London. At two in the morning on February 17, 1872, George Merrett was gunned down in the “notorious crime ridden” Lambeth Marsh section of London. The victim was no one particularly noteworthy nor was the fact that some one was murder at that location a particularly noteworthy event for the neighborhood. What was noteworthy was that the murderer, Dr. William Chester Minor, was a doctor and an officer in the US Army making this an international incident. Even more noteworthy was Minor’s less than coherent reason for killing Merrett. Minor was tried, declared insane, and sentence to life in an asylum for the criminally insane. For all intents and purposes, the Minor’s story should have ended there, but it did not. Minor, rich, brilliant, and except for his nightly delusions of persecution, was quite manageable by the asylum’s standards. He was, therefore, afforded many privileges in the asylum including a suite of rooms, an extensive library of rare books, and free access to correspondences. Well-read, with an extensive reference collection, and not to mention copious free time on his hands, Dr. Minor was the ideal candidate to become a contributor of historic examples of word usage for the ambitious Oxford English Dictionary project. With each of Dr. Minor’s submission, the OED team becomes more curious about the well-educated but reclusive doctor who politely refuses to attend OED dinners and meetings.

This book was a real surprise to me. Selected as the book of the month in my bookclub, I grumbled at the thought of having to read a stuffy book about an old dictionary. I was delightfully proven wrong. The book is more than a history of a dictionary. It is a fascinating biography of a man, brilliant yet insane. He was a man who led an interesting life and paid the price for it. In contrast to Dr. Minor’s life is the life of the OED project’s leader, Professor William Murphy. Murphy is a man who ploddingly moved through the academic life, living and dying in almost obscurity.

I read half the book before time pressure switched me over to the audiotape version. While the book was excellent with wonderful engraved drawings, I loved the audiocassette version. The author read my particular version and his delightful British accent and knowledge of the subject gave a wonderful nuanced reading of the work. I highly recommend this particular audiocassette version!

Simon Winchester is a world traveler and writer with 30 years of experience in the field.  He has written articles for Smithsonian, Conde Nast, and National Geographic. His books include, Outposts (1985), The Sun Never Sets: Travels to the Remaining Outposts of the British Empire (1986); Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles (1988); Pacific Rising: The Emergence of a New World Culture (1991); Pacific Nightmare: How Japan Starts World War III: A Future History (1992); and The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time (1996). His most recent works include, The Professor and the Madman (1998); The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans (1999) and The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology (2001). Rumor has it that “The Professor and the Madman has been optioned for a movie, and Mel Gibson has expressed interest in the role of Professor Murray.”

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester is a delightful book and wonderful learning experience. As odd as the title of this book sounds, it is well-worth reading. Besides to be seen carrying or reading this book will boost your intellectual prowess in the eye’s of others. I highly recommend this book and I also highly recommend the unabridged audiocassette.

 

© 2002 Su Terry

Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.


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