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