Friday, May 10, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Professor and the Madman. A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

A couple years ago, at Thanksgiving dinner, I talked books with one of my dinner companions. He’s a big fan of Simon Winchester. I had to confess I hadn’t read this author, though I’d heard good things about his work. The book I was most interested in was The Professor and the Madman. A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

As evident from the title, it tells the story of how the OED came into being. (Who doesn’t love the OED?) The professor was Dr. James Murray, the dedicated editor who devoted his life to the task. The madman was Dr. William Minor, an educated American Civil War surgeon, who supplied more than ten thousand quotations for the dictionary over the decades of its preparation–from within the confines of an asylum for the criminally insane.

I bought the book, inspired by the enthusiastic recommendations of the other Thanksgiving guest (although actually, he recommended The Map that Changed the World but I liked the idea of this book better.) And then it sat on my shelf for years. So, once again, the TBR pile challenge comes to the rescue. (I dug this one out for my plane ride on the way to a "girls’ weekend" in Chicago. I love Chicago!)

The compilation of the OED was a massive undertaking, spanning many decades. Learning about how the process worked is worth the read. And Winchester does a good job of teasing out the details of the lives of the two men, Murray and Minor, as he presents their dual biographies. However, overall, I had the impression that there was about enough story here for a book half the length of this one and Winchester, who started out with a fascinating idea, was left with the need to significantly pad a good story to get it to a sellable length. There was a lot of digression, repetition, and speculation. So I liked the history but was a little frustrated by its presentation.

But I completed another TBR-pile book! Three down, nine to go. I'd better pick up the pace. The challenge is hosted by Roof Beam Reader.


  1. I read an different nonfiction history book recently that I felt could have been a good magazine article. Isn't it often the case that a writer either needs to narrow his topic (from WW 2 to some aspect of the war) or expand to fit the particular length required? anyway, I enjoy The Professor and the Madman and didn't notice the padding that you mention. At least, I don't think so; it's been a couple of years.
    My review:

  2. YAY for getting another TBR book read. It's always such an achievement. Sorry you didn't love this one. It's sitting in my TBR too. I bought it a 100 years ago when it first came out in hardback.