Saturday, February 20, 2010

Table of Contents: The Professor and The Madman

Author: Simon Winchestor
Publisher/Year: HarperCollins, 1998
Synopsis: It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story — a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray’s offer was regularly — and mysteriously — refused.

Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane — and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

What Others Have To Say
"The elegant curio [Winchester] has created is as enthralling as a good story can be and as informative as any history aspires to be."

The New York Times
"Mr. Winchester leads one to visualize the afflicted, guilt-ridden, demon-obsessed Minor alone in his cell patiently compiling his vast lists, corresponding with Murray and ardently seeking recognition. The vision is exceedingly poignant."

The New York Times (2)
"It's ironic that the O.E.D., now revered ''as a last bastion of cultured Englishness, a final echo of value from the greatest of all modern empires,'' would demonstrate by its very method the degree to which English is not fixed but endlessly changing. "

San Francisco Chronicle
"[Winchester] has compiled enough history to create a fascinating Victorian vignette..."

The Washington Post
"Winchester's history of the OED is brisk and entertaining but sometimes exaggeratedly so; he risks sounding like an episode of "Lifestyles of the Victorian Sublibrarians."

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