The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester


This is my second book this year that featured the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary; the first was a wonderful work of fiction, The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. Now I’ve listened to the irresistible Simon Winchester’s book, mentioned with enthusiasm by Dorothy.

The “professor” was the editor of the OED, James Murray, whose own story is quite dramatic. He was from a modest background and although his prodigious feats of learning set him apart, he did not go to a university. He was chosen for this huge task of creating the dictionary in hopes that he could inspire the help from countless volunteers that was needed; it turns out he was a good choice for that. The volunteers were asked to identify words of interest and to find quotes from books from previous centuries that illustrated the usage of the word in various periods. These quotes show the history of a word’s use over time.

The “madman,” and he was in fact quite mad, was William C. Minor, who had been a doctor in the American army at the time of the Civil War. His first battlefield experience was the horror that was the Battle of the Wilderness which took place not far from where I live, in Orange County, Virginia. His family was quite wealthy and sometime after the war, he settled in England. He randomly shot a man he saw on a street and when he was arrested, revealed his paranoid delusions.  His confinement in  Broadmoor Asylum in Crowthorne was made more comfortable by having plenty of money so that he could have two rooms. He had his considerable library moved into one of them and he was able to continue to add books to the library. During the day he did the brilliant work of contributing over 100,000 quotations to the dictionary while at night he battled his demons who seemed to win.

James Murray was grateful for Minor’s work and corresponded with him for nearly 20 years before he learned that Broadmoor wasn’t a pleasant country estate. Murray visited Minor several times and remained loyal to him until his (Murray’s) death. Simon Winchester is quite the story-teller and I enjoyed this one as I did his book The Man Who Loved China. What he wrote about the Civil War was problematic and did not square with what I have heard the eminent scholar on that war, Ed Ayers, say.

I continue to think about the years of exacting work that required great intelligence and dedication that a man with such persistent delusions could accomplish. By day he was a useful and brilliant colleague; by night he was plagued by the certainty that beings arose from the space between the floors to abuse him, ruin his books, and spirit him away to other locations. What a terrifying life the poor man had.

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman, HarperCollins, 1998, 242 pages (I listened to the audiobook). The print and downloadable ebook are available from the public library.

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