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March 1, 2008

The Professor and the Madman

A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Simon Winchester – ISBN – 9780060839789

This fascinating saga is well told by Winchester. The protagonists are Dr. James Murray, editor of the dictionary, and Dr. Wm. Minor, a crucial contributor: Yale graduate, American physician in the Civil War, and schizophrenic “madman” convicted of, and incarcerated for, a bizarre murder in the slums of London.

Murray’s mission was to replace the only dictionary of record: that of Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose rendering had been in existence for over 100 years, and was in its fourth edition.

The author reviews principal biographic details of Murray and Minor, while briefly mentioning others and their contributions to this monumental work. He describes in well selected detail the development of this mind-numbing project which involved 10 times the word count of Johnson’s, and required 10 times as long to complete. It required sorting thru 6 million word-slathered slips of paper compiled by hundreds of unpaid volunteers (over 10,000 from Minor, alone.) In so doing he delivers an absorbing story which otherwise would have been a boring dissertation on an arcane subject.

He deftly chronicles the adventure from initial miscalculations, thru ill suited editors, to reluctant publishers, and ends describing Minor’s exacting standards and methods which endeared him to Murray. Amongst myriad other contributors Murray valued Minor’s “astonishing accuracy and eye for detail.”

Over a period of 30 years Minor became the equivalent of “just in time” production, a century before it was adopted by manufacturers. Every time Murray was struggling over a difficult word-- be it the definition or examples--he contacted Minor, who invariably had it already prepared.

Only after years into the endeavor did Murray discover that Minor was confined to a prison for the criminally insane; and only after that meeting did they establish a friendship which lasted for decades. Murray was instrumental in having Minor released and returned to America in his dotage. Sadly, Minor died in obscurity and was buried in New Haven, CT, in an old cemetery near what now is a slum.

There is much to be discovered about the Victorian era, language, a peculiar friendship and an elaborate unfolding of the line between sanity and madness. It is eloquent testimony to Simon’s own exacting standards of research and his incredible writing skills.

This is my idea of something “light” to read in leisure time, as opposed to murder mysteries and most modern fiction.

Posted by respeto at March 1, 2008 5:36 PM