I bought this one because it’s going to be assigned in a class I’ll be taking later this summer. Since it interested me on its own merit, I thought I’d read it now and get a jump on things.
The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester, is a careful examination of the facts of a story that’s become a legend in the literary world. The popular account, first published by an American journalist in 1915, tells how Professor James Murray, chief editor of the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary, wished to meet in person his most valuable volunteer contributor (in those pre-spreadsheet days, the literary citations necessary to trace word meanings through the centuries were gathered by an army of volunteers who combed old books for examples of word use and sent them to Oxford on slips of paper). So he wrote to Dr. William Minor of Crowthorne, Berkshire, asking to visit. Receiving his invitation, he took the train to Crowthorne, and was driven by carriage to a great, walled estate out in the countryside. Ushered inside to an impressive office, he asked the distinguished man behind the desk if he had the honor of addressing Dr. William Minor. The man said he was not. “I am the superintendent of Broadmoor Asylum. Dr. Minor is one of our patients.”
The actual events, which author Winchester documents, are a little less dramatic, but the overall story remains a fascinating one. William Minor was born to missionary parents on the island of Ceylon. He studied medicine, became a surgeon, and served in the American Civil War. Suffering increasing paranoid delusions in the wake of his war experiences, he eventually moved to London (Lambeth), where early one morning he murdered an inoffensive workman with his Colt revolver. His obvious insanity earned him a suite at Broadmoor, where he answered a call for volunteers to help with the massive, multi-volume dictionary.
Simon Winchester is an excellent writer, and the story is a fascinating one for anyone who loves books and words. I have a set of the OED myself (the two-volume micrographic edition, which you have to read with a magnifying glass), and it’s a treasure. Winchester notes that the purpose of the project was different from that of other nations. Unlike the French, for instance, there was no intention to “fix” the language in a definitive, unchangeable form. The OED was designed to trace the history of each English word, and to include all current variations.
The author’s attempt to parallel Murray’s and Minor’s life stories is not entirely successful, in my view. Yes, they were both raised Congregationalists, but in different countries, and their life’s paths were not all that similar. It is suggested that Minor’s childhood Puritanism may have contributed to his breakdown, but that theme is not hammered on too heavily.
All in all, a masterful book about a masterful project. Recommended.