The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history The compilation of the OED, begun in , was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr W C Minor, had submitted than ten thousand When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light Dr Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane I have been meaning to read this book for years I couldn t even tell you when I first saw it or heard about it and thought it would be a good idea to read Then I saw a copy in a bookshop that was going cheap and bought it on my way to my mother s place I showed it to her and then lent it to her She told me she enjoyed it so that made me keen to read it too That was a couple of years ago as you see, I was in no rush I think mum even lent it to my sister to read This was a remarkable b I have been meaning to read this book for years I couldn t even tell you when I first saw it or heard about it and thought it would be a good idea to read Then I saw a copy in a bookshop that was going cheap and bought it on my way to my mother s place I showed it to her and then lent it to her She told me she enjoyed it so that made me keen to read it too That was a couple of years ago as you see, I was in no rush I think mum even lent it to my sister to read This was a remarkable book It might have been a book that didn t quite seem to know how to end but I even liked that about it, perhaps because I was so delighted by it that I wasn t sure I wanted it to end Winchester is a true story teller He does explain an awful lot of what might appear to be extraneous material, but I found all of this utterly fascinating anyway, so wasn t put off in the least The book smashes together not just the story of a insane murderer and so providing an interesting excuse to discuss 19th Century definitions of insanity, murder and the laws pertaining to these but a remarkable range of other events from that century and the early years of the next Central to all this, of course, is also the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and the lives of two central figures in the making of the big dictionary.But thrown into the pot for good measure are also bits of the American Civil War, the part played by the Irish in that war, a discussion of the nature of lunatic asylums and even an incredibly sexy description of the naked, romping girls of Sri Lanka which I can only assume was paid for by the Sri Lankan Tourist BureauAnd there are the girls young, chocolate skinned, giggling naked girls with sleek wet bodies and rosebud nipples and long hair and coltish legs and with scarlet and purple petals folded behind their ears, who play in the white Indian Ocean surf and who run, quite without shame, along the cool wet sands on their way back home The story of Minor, the American who is one of the two protagonists is a terribly touching story There is an interesting discussion about whether there can be two protagonists in any one story which makes a lovely digression and segue into the preoccupation with words and their meanings, both such important themes of this book Minor was a man tortured by demons and caught in a nightmare where only his work in finding quotations of words to be used in the OED offered him any measure of relief.They say there are no atheists in fox holes but I have found that the occurrence of the words penis , penknife and self inflicted wound in a single sentence also has me turning to God and even calling out his son s name in full.The tale of the Irishman branded on the face with a D during the Civil War had much the same effect We tend to forget how muchhumane we have become in such a short time the American Civil War wasn t all that long ago, but behaviours like those described here, performed against soldiers of your own side, would never be tolerated today at least, I hope.I m quite pleased with my prescience in relation to this book pleased to have recommended it before having any idea what it would be like or what it would be about other than the sketchiest of outlines But prescient or not, I feel much better that I can recommend this wholeheartedly now in the certain knowledge it cannot really fail but to delight If you get a chance to listen to the talking book version read by the author I would highly recommend that too for each word, there should be sentences that show the twists and turns of meanings the way almost every word slips in its silvery, fishlike way, weaving this way and that, adding subtleties of nuance to itself, and then perhaps shedding them as public mood dictates Herbert Coleridge whose brilliant life was too short.I was driving into work the other day thinking about Herbert Coleridge and realized that I might possibly be the only person on the planet driving to work thinking about for each word, there should be sentences that show the twists and turns of meanings the way almost every word slips in its silvery, fishlike way, weaving this way and that, adding subtleties of nuance to itself, and then perhaps shedding them as public mood dictates Herbert Coleridge whose brilliant life was too short.I was driving into work the other day thinking about Herbert Coleridge and realized that I might possibly be the only person on the planet driving to work thinking about Herbie Of course, there are such a vast number of people on this planet that chances are someone was thinking about him Perhaps some Coleridge scholar working on a dissertation on Herbert s famous grandfather, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or maybe someone thinking about the beginnings of the Oxford English Dictionary Herbert Coleridge was technically the first editor of the OED and would have done a fine job, I m sure, if he hadn t caught a chill and died tragically young at thirty years of age The reason I was thinking about him is because Simon Winchester mentioned him, and my quick research, before leaving for work, had been unsatisfactory in discovering how exactly he was descended from Samuel He was not the son of one of Samuel s sons so that only left the daughter Sara Of course, my first thought was that she must have had him out of wedlock I must formally apologize to Mrs Sara Coleridge for thinking such scandalous thoughts As it turns out, she married her first cousin Henry Nelson Coleridge Herbert was very much a legitimate child Though the idea of creating a complete dictionary of the English language was proposed in 1857 It was not until 1884 that parts of it were ready for publication It floundered for decades under the weight of its own expectations It wasn t until the 1870s, when James Murray was asked to helm the project, that the possibility of achieving such a feat became a real possibility Murray was a precocious talent, a true scholar who was, for the most part, self educatedJames continued to amassandknowledge, if only as he would admit for the sake of knowledge itself, and often in the most eccentric of waysWe are living in an age of specialized knowledge, and too many people only read books or magazine articles that contribute to their specialized knowledge Knowing something for the sake of knowing it has become such an outdated concept as to be considered odd behavior James Murray in the scriptorium built to house all the slips of paper coming in from his readers to compile the OED.Murray knew that this project was too large for the academic community to shoulder alone He placed advertisements asking for help from the whole country He needed readers who would notate words and the sentence they were used in The system Murray developed to handle this influx of information is ingenious, and like most clever systems simple by design One of the people who answered his call for help was an American surgeon named Doctor William Chester Minor He became one of the largest, most consistent contributors to the OED He had a lot of time on his hands given the fact that he was detained in safe custody until Her Majesty s Pleasure be known Doesn t that sound lovely I could almost believe that Minor is sipping tea and eating cucumber sandwiches while seated at a garden table at Windsor waiting for the Queen to have a chance to see him Unfortunately, it is just a pretty way of saying he is incarcerated in an asylum for the criminally insane As you learn the details of his life he was most assuredly dangerously insane with roots for this insanity going back to the time he served in the Union army during the Civil War The roots went deeper, in fact back into his genetic history His family was delicate mentally They were bright and brilliant but like many hyper intelligent people wound too tight They felt things too intently Two of his brothers committed suicide Minor was beset by twisted, shattered dreams involving Irish people trying to kill He was a self reproaching masturbator who also has vivid nightmares which fueled his already prodigious self abuseMen would then break into his rooms, place him in a flying machine, and take him to brothels in Constantinople, where he would be forced to perform acts of terrible lewdness with cheap women and small girlsHis delusions wrapped in fear bled dreams into reality causing him to misinterpret events around him This all culminated in one final act which made it readily apparent that his incarceration was the only option left for society It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the Madman and the Professor, without the added distractions of Ingrid Bergman or Paul Henreid.Though Minor was held in Broadmoor for the criminally insane, he had money and, therefore, could enjoyluxury than the normal inmate In fact, he rented a second cell, and that became his sitting room and library He paid another inmate to build him beautiful, teak bookshelves His wealth enabled him to also buy expensive antique books from bookstores not only in England, but from America as well Considering the circumstances, he was beyond just comfortable, and if one can ignore the bars on the windows, you might even say he was pampered Working on the OED helped him focus his mind and probably kept him from spiralling deeper into his own misconceptions Dr William Chester MinorThe OED did not reach completion until 1928 Neither Murray nor Minor lived long enough to see the job done, but without their Herculean efforts the whole idea may have been relegated to another generation or maybe never completed at all As Murray becameandfamous, he becameanduncomfortable with the attentionI m a nobody, he would write toward the end of the century, when fame had begun to creep up on him Treat me as a solar myth, or an echo, or an irrational quantity, or ignore me altogether If we are fortunate, we find a worthwhile task to do while on this planet Murray and Minor both found that task in compiling the English language Winchester does a wonderful job of conveying the absurdity and the wonderfulness of these two men finding so much in common, despite one existing in the hallowed halls of academia and the other existing in the bedlam of an asylum I once dated a young lady who owned a two volume boxed copy of the OED, which also included a small drawer on top for the much needed magnifying glass It was an affordable way to own the twenty volume OED I can remember spending many afternoons randomly turning pages and reading definitions of words I ll probably never read in a novel or ever use in a sentence I was accused by a friend of dating this girl for the primary purpose of having access to her OED I was appalled and offended by such a dastardly assertion I was, if anything, dating her for her F Scott Fitzgerald first edition collection I could eventually afford an OED, but getting my hands on first edition Fitzgerald s was lookingandimprobable Alas, as it turns out, the woman was batshit crazy, so a merging of libraries never occurred I do think back to those halcyon days when she had left for work, and it was just me, the OED, and the Fitzgeralds Sigh If you wish to seeof my most recent book and movie reviews, visit also have a Facebook blogger page at As a completely fledged bibliopsychotic and an ever striving to be cunning linguist , I was all aquiver with anticipation to bury my face in this purported history of the Oxford English Dictionary OED Alas, despite being well written and thoroughly researched, I m having to fake it a bit to give this a full 3 stars My primary joy dampening problem with the book s arrangement was the dearth of page time given to what I see as the most fascinating aspect of the story the actual nuts and bolts As a completely fledged bibliopsychotic and an ever striving to be cunning linguist , I was all aquiver with anticipation to bury my face in this purported history of the Oxford English Dictionary OED Alas, despite being well written and thoroughly researched, I m having to fake it a bit to give this a full 3 stars My primary joy dampening problem with the book s arrangement was the dearth of page time given to what I see as the most fascinating aspect of the story the actual nuts and bolts of putting together the OED and the history of etymological word cataloging Unfortunately, this element only makes up about 20% to 25% of the book with the majority devoted to the life stories of Professor James Murray, head of the OED project, and Dr W.C Minor, a criminally insane murderer This was a disappointing use of subject matter allocation Most of the biographical portion is devoted to Dr Minor who, admittedly, was a fascinating character with a colorful history The author traces the madman s early career as an Army surgeon during the Civil War, an experience that appears to have been the genesis of his growing dementia We are given insight into Minor s abby normal sexual appetites and his irrational, all consuming fear of Irishmen This potent combination leads eventually to the crime that earned him a permanent residency at Broadmoor Hospital aka lunatic asylum As interesting as this material was, I would have much preferred acliff notey segment on Minor to make room for aexpansive discussion of the highlights below Granted, when Dr Minor coolly and methodically lops off his own penis as a self help remedy to combat the demons causing his bizarre sexual urges I was glued like Elmer s to the page I was also wincing and reading with one hand while the other one was guarding my goodies BTWthe man never even screamed while he removed his appendage I screamed reading about it The guy was a whole bowl of grape nuts As for Professor Murray, I found the portions dealing with him to be tedious and dry I could have done without them completely so his appearance has been edited from this review Still, there is some real gold in the book Even with the relatively scant attention paid to the actual production of the OED, there were a handful of highlights that make this book well worth perusing HIGHLIGHTS The history of word collection, origins and philological research into first usage was nothing short of warm butter on hot bread awesome and I gobbled up every second of it Please give me a full book on this someday squeeeeee These discussions about the research methods and the comprehensive aspect of the undertaken begun in 1857 on the OED was mind boggling I also particularly enjoyed the distinctions drawn between the heterogeneous linguistic melting pot that is the English language and the relatively homogenous, strictly pure bred French language There was one genuine light bulb moment of illumination discussed by the author that really left me floored with mouth agape While giving a run down on the origin of the first dictionary, Winchester discusses the fact that Shakespeare, with his amazingly diverse vocabulary, was able to write such works with no centralized catalog of words allowing him to confirm their proper usage Thiswasstaggeringtome and was easily the most valuable insight I took away from this read I live inside my dictionary both Urban and Oxford and my thesaurus and can t imagine the mastery of language that necessary to create works like Shakespeare s catalog without a linguistic safety net That revelation alone was worth the price of the book for me and further elevated my profound respect for the masterful word smiths of antiquity The discussion of the cooperative process of compiling the OED and the monumental undertaking that such creating the OED was fascinating Tens of thousands of amateur philologists researching and sending Murray s team slips with words and brief histories of their origin, which were then compiled and processed by the Oxford committee This was terrific stuff I would have loved muchon the 3 items above Still, the story is well written and I think the author s regard for the subject matter comes through in the prose Thus, despite my tarnished expectations, I am going to give the doubt s benefit to the book and award it 3 stars because it s one I would recommend so long as you go into it knowing that you will get heavy doses of Murray and Minor and only a light serving of etymology 3.0 stars Recommended with caveats Professor James Murray was one of the primary editors of the Oxford English Dictionary OED Dr Chester Minor, was one of the primary contributors to the massive project But Murray did not know that Minor was an inmate in an insane asylum Simon Winchester image from Andersons Bookshop The book tells their separate stories, how Murray rose to the prominence necessary to land this major position, how Minor emerged from a troubled, if well to do youth to commit a heinous and addled murder in L Professor James Murray was one of the primary editors of the Oxford English Dictionary OED Dr Chester Minor, was one of the primary contributors to the massive project But Murray did not know that Minor was an inmate in an insane asylum Simon Winchester image from Andersons Bookshop The book tells their separate stories, how Murray rose to the prominence necessary to land this major position, how Minor emerged from a troubled, if well to do youth to commit a heinous and addled murder in London, and then to be institutionalized for the rest of his life The book gives a vivid picture of the times mid to late 19th century Winchester has a gift for bringing history to life, and surprising us.Published September 28, 1008Review April 28, 2017 EXTRA STUFFLinks to the author s personal, Twitter and FB pagesA few other books by Simon Winchester Krakatoa Atlantic Pacific The Map That Changed the WorldThere are plentyWinchester books out there I have listed only the ones I have read