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The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

Rating: 4.5

The Professor and the Madman The Professor and the Madman

Author: Simon Winchester

Reader: Simon Winchester

Audiobook Extras: The Audible edition includes a great discussion between the author and the current editor of the OED, John Simpson.

Short Review: A fascinating story about two of the men who dedicated their lives to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary: one a Scottish Philologist, and one an institutionalized American doctor.

Long Review: I had to read this book. My only disappointment is that I waited so long. I was particularly drawn to the book because of the way the subject matter touches on little things that are vital to me: lexicography and philology, Scotland, England, Virginia, and Washington, DC all twine through the book. It touches on most of the places I’ve lived and the center of my academic background.

The story tracks the intertwined lives of Professor James Murray, a Scottish autodidact turned academic who dedicated himself to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary; and Dr. W. C. Minor, a physician and American Civil War veteran who voluntarily assisted in the compilation of the OED while incarcerated in a British asylum. Winchester waded through British and American records to track the lives of both men and explain their unique contributions to this cornerstone of English lexicography, and in so doing revealed a lot of interesting information about Victorian and Edwardian concepts of mental illness, the community spirit that fuels so much of the OED’s creation and maintenance, and the changing technologies and social views the OED’s editors witnessed during their great undertaking.

Winchester makes for a wonderful reader–his diction is lovely and his pacing is good throughout, and his accent is just right for this subject matter. I’m looking forward to listening to other books of his.

The book’s pacing is excellent as well, and at times it feels almost like a cozy mystery. I enjoyed listening to an English historian’s tangential views about the American Civil War–something that dominates the local history in my region, but which often seems to be viewed only through two lenses. As with most enjoyable histories, this book left me wanting to learn more about Minor and Murray, but also about Victorian asylums, the OED’s other contributors, London’s early police, and a dozen other topics that pop up throughout the course of the work.