The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester, is a history book – and probably the most gripping, page-turning, can’t-put-it-down, stay-up-till-2-am history book I’ve ever read. It tells the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary was made, and of two men who were instrumental in making it.
First off, the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) is way more interesting than I ever suspected – and this from a guy who loves words. I had no idea how huge it is: over 300,000 entries, over 20,000 pages, 20 volumes, at last count. Literary quotations for every word. It’s like an encyclopedia for a language. The first edition took 70 years to make. A monumental work.
James Murray (the professor) was head editor of the OED’s first edition. Nothing like the OED had ever been attempted before, and he had no idea if he would succeed. But he knew he and his small team couldn’t possibly do it alone. So they sent out paper slips all over London and beyond, requesting volunteer readers to hunt out all different shades of meaning for all different words in all different works of literature. He was, in other words, crowd-sourcing – a radical idea at the time.
William C. Minor (the madman) was an American born in Sri Lanka, a brilliant surgeon who served in the Army and found himself exposed to the horrors of the Civil War. As he grew older, he struggled more and more with paranoid delusions and powerful sexual urges. He moved to London, shot and killed a man while in a delusional state, and was committed to an asylum, with a room full of books.
While he was there, he received a certain paper slip about creating a certain dictionary…and, with a brilliant mind and abundant free time, he became one of the OED’s most prolific contributors.
The two men’s paths converge from there, and they become close friends, their lives inextricably tangled.
Well-written, thoroughly detailed, meticulously researched, surprisingly suspenseful, The Professor and the Madman is simply a beautiful book. Read it if you can.
(Or, I mean, if you want to. I’m not the boss of you!)