6/25/2007

Recommended Reading

With so much schlock on bookstore shelves, it is often difficult to find a book that has a readable pace, yet won’t insult your intelligence. Books can be like food, ranging from the empty-calorie offerings to the dense high-fiber versions that are good for you yet not always palatable. Somewhere in between lie the well-balanced tomes that offer the mind something both tasty and satisfying.

One such book that I’ve recently come across is The Professor and the Madman. In truth, I don’t know that I would have picked this one up on my own. I received it as a present, which makes me wonder if the gift-giver might not know me, in this sense, a little better than I know myself.

Subtitled “A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary,” it might have languished on the bookstore shelves as one of the “high-fiber” options that I feel like I should read, but just never get around to doing so. In this case, the gift-giver’s enthusiasm convinced me to dive right in.

And I am so glad I did. Author Simon Winchester takes a topic that could easily be dry and academic, but instead paints a fantastic historical perspective in which the events take place. His descriptions of 19th century England are vivid and insightful, painting an incredible backdrop to a truly bizarre tale.

His look into the creation of the renowned Oxford English Dictionary points out that creating this first English language dictionary was one of the most ambitious literary projects ever undertaken. In a quest to document and track changes to the English language, the first OED was slated to take a decade to complete. Seventy-one years later, the project would finally be published for the first time, its founding father dead for three decades.

The Oxford English Dictionary has continued to evolve, adding words to its pages as we add them to our vocabularies. This enormous undertaking today stands at twenty volumes, 145 pounds, and a staggering price tag to match.

But Simon Winchester’s book isn’t merely about words. It’s about the strange collaboration between Professor James Murray, head of the OED’s oversight committee, and Dr. W.C. Minor--an American, a Civil War Veteran, an expatriate living in England.

When Professor Murray set off to finally meet the good doctor with whom he had been corresponding for the previous twenty years, he found yet another moniker to add to the list, which becomes the basis of this remarkable book.

In the foreward of this book, the Professor sets off on a journey to visit Dr. Minor, and is met at the railway station by a coachman who ushers the guest into a carriage. They pass through rural English countryside, and arrive at an imposing mansion. Professor Murray is shown into a study where he meets a regal man he naturally assumes is Dr. Minor.

“There was a brief pause, a momentary air of mutual embarrassment. A clock ticked loudly. There were muffled footsteps in the hall. A distant clank of keys. And then the man behind the desk cleared his throat, and he spoke:

‘I regret, kind sir,that I am not. It is not at all as you suppose. I am in fact the Governor of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Dr. Minor is most certainly here. But he is an inmate. He has been a patient here for more than twenty years. He is our longest-staying resident.’”

The author finishes this section of the foreward by telling readers that “Although the official government files relating to this case are secret, and have been locked away for more than a century, I have recently been allowed to see them. What follows is the strange, tragic, yet spiritually uplifting story they reveal.”

Simon Winchester’s lively narrative makes this a page-turning book that winds up being a fairly quick read. Thankfully, he’s produced another novel on the same topic. While I have not yet read this follow-up to The Professor and the Madman, I am excited about the prospect of reading this next book as well.

The Meaning of Everything takes a closer look at what actually went into the creation of such an ambitious publication. We learn about the difficulty in tracking this voluminous creation, in the hands of hundreds of volunteers spread across thousands of miles.

In creating the OED, some sacks of documents were lost in transit after being nibbled by mice. Others were simply misplaced. Once the tens of thousands of documents arrived to their destination at the tin shed deemed the “Scriptorium,” they were hand-sorted into pigeonhole slots. J.R.R. Tolkien was just one such volunteer on the project.

While summertime reading often drifts off into the mindless, Simon Winchester is an author who writes with a vivid, well-paced style. His works offer readers the opportunity to learn about a deeply wonky topic without ever adopting the approach of a textbook. In other words, perfect reading for a quiet evening on the porch with a glass of something cold

36 comments:

The Real Wagga™ said...

Thanks for the tip on "The Meaning of Everything"

You might enjoy the fictional work "The Alienist" (Caleb Carr)

Aspeth said...

Thanks, Wagga. I looked it up and it also looks like a page-turner. (not to mention that there are copies online for a penny!!! lol...i love it!)

Aspeth said...

T, in case you're reading this, this post was with you in mind. I think I read last week that you were looking for another good book to read, and thought you'd really dig this one :)

lawnmower man said...

Ta likewise -- I put both on request at the library.

Aspeth said...

lawnmower man...I wholeheartedly recommend the Professor and the Madman, and am excited about reading the other book. I keep thinking now about what the Scriptorium must have looked like and how, in this day of technological organization, how complex it had to have been to sort those entries.

I might be fast on my way to becoming a huge Simon Winchester cheerleader. I really dig his writing and am now immensely impressed with the variety of topics he's written about.

I truly think you'll enjoy his work as well. Let me know what you think.

Schnapps said...

I am currently reading a trashy book called "Notting Hell". Looking forward to reading this one now, too, though, and Wagga's suggestion.

Thanks for giving me my summer reading. I may actually need it to fill some time.

The Real Wagga™ said...

A fair warning - "Alienist" is first of a series, and reading in sequence is important.

I do have a printed copy of the OED (1928) and v2 CDROM

Anonymous said...

I think you mean "palatable," not "palpable."

T said...

Aspeth said...
T, in case you're reading this, this post was with you in mind. I think I read last week that you were looking for another good book to read, and thought you'd really dig this one :)


You spoil me. <3 Thank you!

Aspeth said...

Schnapps...'tis the season of trashy novels! I think I managed to read this one in a couple of flights, though, so not too heavy.

Wagga...a pricey treasure, that. I just saw that the 2002 edition runs a healthy $1,200.

Anon...you are correct. I should proof blog posts, which I obviously don't always do!

T...Anytime. I've wanted to recommend this book to a lot of people, and then I realize they don't really read (!!!) I love being able to pass along a book I've enjoyed. If you were in the neighborhood, I'd send you off with my copy :)

Akubi said...

Geeez Aspeth,
Everyone wants to hear about your foray in Bollywood and instead you write about books;)!
Speaking of "Scriptorium" have you read Paul Auster's latest book? I haven't, but it's on my wish list, but need some other items in my basket to qualify for super saver shipping.

Ogg the Caveman said...

Wow, not a single book on the list that I've heard of. It sounds like I've got some ordering and reading to do once I find some free time.

T said...

Asp,

I seriously don't get people who don't read for pleasure. My life would be incomplete without books.

NERDY FACT ABOUT ME: When I was a kid, I wanted be a librarian when I grew up.

Akubi - How dare you suggest that your bollywood info request is more important than my quest for the next great book??

I mean, hello? You obviously didn't get the memo. I'm Aspeth's girl crush. My needs come first. :)

Akubi said...

T,
Well, Stephanie J. likes me so there :).

T said...

Oh, yeah? Well, Aspeth is WAY groovier than Steph J so I totally got the better girl crush.

I win!

Aspeth said...

Akubi, I saw that on your blog, but since I read it in a fever-induced fugue, had forgotten you wanted the Bollywood story. Who says that wasn't a joke?

T...I'm sure you give me way too much credit. Steph J is wicked cool, so the only contest I'm gonna win there is that I probably say 'fuck' a lot more.

When you guys see the topic of today's post (which keeps getting delayed because of those pesky clients), you might want to back off the topic at hand...heehehe.

The Real Wagga™ said...

Oh, yeah? Well, Aspeth is WAY groovier than Steph J so I totally got the better girl crush.

Dibs on the boy cyber-crush.

For low-fiber summer fiction I like Carl Hiaasen. (He wrote the intro for the "Deep Blue Goodbye")

Funny, twisted, and the subtle didactic ecological content makes for a good summer read.

Just finished "Skinny Dip", here is a pointer to the works...

Ogg the Caveman said...

Oh, please. I've got you all beat here.

The Real Wagga™ said...

Oh, please. I've got you all beat here.

You got lighting in your cave?

And books are thirty-three thousand years into the future?
Like the artwork, anyway.

Ogg the Caveman said...

@ Wagga:

By "I've got you all beat here" I was referring to crushes.

You got lighting in your cave?

Ever hear of fire?

And books are thirty-three thousand years into the future?

So's the internet, oddly enough.

The Real Wagga™ said...

@Ogg

For starters, I might be geographically undesirable, but you are geologically undesirable!

You will club our delicate Aspeth and drag her to your cave by her exotic long hair. Asking her to comb out the grass seeds from you lush body hair is way inferior to my asking her to discuss good books over a feisty red or a hoppy brew.

On the other hand, you might have more original artwork on your walls - but maybe not...

Schnapps said...

Aspeth is teasing us :>

BelowTheCrowd said...

Wagga,

I first brought Hiaasen to this blog. Even got a "book of the week" mention a couple of weeks ago. Hail ME!

Aspeth's persistence in her assault on all things Casey reminds me of Honey Santana, aka the Nature Girl.

-btc

BelowTheCrowd said...

Seriously though Aspeth, we all know that you're off secretly somewhere, reading the latest "Shopaholic" novel.

-btc

Aspeth said...

What a weird tangent has transpired here! Funny stuff.

Sorry, Schnapps. Didn't mean to tease, but am just now finishing the work day.

Ogg, I'm assuming that you're referring to Akubi, Bollywood fan and submarine princess.

Wagga, the Hiaasen reference did make me think that you were atually BTC in another form. BTC did, as you now see, introduce his works to the mix. As for the other comments, did PMSPMS post that damned picture again?!? (that scenario you described reminds me of Clan of the Cave Bear.)

BTC--For SHAME. That bitch Sophie Kinsella is on my list...inspid fucking Shopaholic--not just book--but SERIES?!?! Oh yeah, that's list-making material right there.

The Real Wagga™ said...

I do have an autographed first edition of "Valley of the Horses"

Akubi said...

Given the Bollywood vs. Book Review debate I now have an official
poll
. Honest answers only please.

Akubi said...

Aspeth, I hope you don't mind. I just couldn't help myself.

Ogg the Caveman said...

@ Aspeth:

Submarine princess?

BelowTheCrowd said...

Yay! I annoyed Aspeth.

An old GF used to read the Kinsella toilet paper. She didn't like the fact that I persued the first chapter or two of one of them (I think the first) and immediately told her the rest of the plot. I am single now...

And speaking of annyances, the most annoying one is on the cover of the local rag this month. Unfortunately their website is two months behind so the current Chloe-adorned cover is not there yet. Instead you get to find out about a previous local annoyance.

I can send you a copy, if you wish...

-btc

Aspeth said...

Ogg...a long time ago on EN, I said that I wanted to colonize my own private island. Akubi said something to the effect that she was going to purchase a submarine and come visit. I warned her to call ahead, as my private militia would have shoot-to-kill orders unless otherwise told to stand down. Just a kooky tangent...

BTC...It could very well be a great way to wind down at the end of a difficult day. But it really kills me to think about the untold thousands of great writers out there who don't enjoy nearly the same level of success, while the vapid chick lit authors are cashing big cheques from their movie options. It's just twisted.

Ogg the Caveman said...

@ Aspeth:

But it really kills me to think about the untold thousands of great writers out there who don't enjoy nearly the same level of success, while the vapid chick lit authors are cashing big cheques from their movie options. It's just twisted.

It's unfortunate, but it's also understandable. Most people, most of the time, read to be entertained and to escape. I don't mean to be elitist -- I absolutely include myself in that group. For one reason or another, most of us come home from work without much spare brain power at least some of the time.

In that environment, authors that make their readers think are at a distinct disadvantage to those that provide pure, low-calorie entertainment. Material that is thought-provoking and still a more or less easy read obviously has a place, but I think can be hard at first glance to tell that from the stuff that's necessarily going to burn serious brain cycles.

Take that to the logical conclusion in TV, and you get Baywatch. In books, you get the runaway success of vapid chick lit. It's not that those works are more accessible than better stuff, it's that they're more obviously accessible.

As for your reccommendations, I will look into them as soon as I'm done massively focusing on other matters.

crazy dog lady said...

It's been at least 4 or 5 years since I've read The Professor and the Lawman...I had no idea another book was coming out after.
Thanks!! I will watch for that.

I read it on one of my bizarre true crime reading sprees. The same time I read about those twin black girls in England that didn't talk and were hospitalized at Broadmoor..then became writers.
Pepsi-Cola Addict, June and Jennifer Gibbons)

I had forgotten all about that book you just reviewed. Good stuff. Thanks.

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