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The Professor and the Madman | [Simon Winchester]

The Professor and the Madman

Part history, part true-crime, and entirely entertaining, listen to the story of how the behemoth Oxford English Dictionary was made. You'll hang on every word as you discover that the dictionary's greatest contributor was also an insane murderer working from the confines of an asylum.
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Audible Editor Reviews

Why we think it's Essential: This is a fascinating cubbyhole of literary history that plays like the best fiction: the most-prolific contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary turns out to be an imprisoned murderer. Listening to Simon Winchester's quirky and endearing narration, I found myself infected by his obvious enthusiasm for the story - and for the detective work it took to uncover it. —Steve Feldberg

Publisher's Summary

Hidden within the rituals of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is a fascinating mystery. Professor James Murray was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was one of the most prolific contributors to the dictionary, sending thousands of neat, hand-written quotations from his home. After numerous refusals from Minor to visit his home in Oxford, Murray set out to find him. It was then that Murray would finally learn the truth about Minor - that, in addition to being a masterly wordsmith, he was also an insane murderer locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics. The Professor and the Madman is the unforgettable story of the madness and genius that contributed to one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters.

©1998 Simon Winchester; (P) 1999 HarperCollins Publishers Inc., All Rights Reserved, Harper Audio, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers

What the Critics Say

"The linguistic detective story of the decade." (New York Times Magazine)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

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  •  
    Amazon Customer Utah 02-05-12
    Amazon Customer Utah 02-05-12 Member Since 2015

    tired teacher

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Stranger than Fiction"

    I have a hard time giving a non-fiction book five stars, for some reason. But this book was so fascinating to me. I have always loved the dictionary. Call me strange. You won't be the first. But I remember even in high school and earlier that when I looked a word up in the dictionary, I would get all excited as I got close to finding it. I just couldn't wait to find out all about words. I am still like that to a large degree. The most used app on my smart phone is the dictionary app. By far! Even more than Angry Birds . . .

    Anyway, I found this whole story fascinating. The whole process of compiling the words for the first truly comprehensive dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, would make a good story by itself. Couple that with the fact that the most valuable contributor was for the remainder of his life, in an institute for the criminally insane for murder, and it becomes stranger than fiction. My heart was so broken for William Miner and the crazy mixed up life he lived. Nevertheless, it was only because of his dysfunction that he was able to devote so much time to working on the Oxford English Dictionary. While he worked on the dictionary, he was not bothered by the hallucinations that drove him mad much of the rest of the time. William lived a long life, but I can only imagine the relief he must have felt when he was able to lay his mortal body down and his dysfunction along with it.

    I'm not often a fan of authors reading their own book, but I thought Simon Winchester did a good job of reading this book.

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    MP 01-20-04
    MP 01-20-04
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    "Enthralling"

    I just loved listening to this book. Mr. Winchester's obvious curiousity and erudition comes through in the structure of the book, his detailed research, and his reading of the narrative. Who would have thought that a book about a dictionary -- and the somewhat peculiar people who created it -- would be so fascinating. But, even my kids (ages 8 and 11) were enthralled when they were listening along with me in the car and refused to get out until a section was completed. And, my daughter (the 11 year old) made a bee-line for the OED at a library visit months after listening to even that one small section of the book!

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    RaisinNut PA, USA 10-12-12
    RaisinNut PA, USA 10-12-12 Member Since 2011

    Making the world better one review at a time.

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    "Reads like a psychological thriller!"

    You may be thinking, "How good can a book about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary really be?" The answer is, amazing! Far from dull or boring, this historical work has the edge-of-your-seat feel of a psychological thriller.

    This is the story of two very different men who come together to help create the Oxford English Dictionary. Editor James Murray has a revolutionary idea: call upon volunteers to help build the massive collection of words. One volunteer stands out among the others for the quality and quantity of his submissions. This volunteer is Dr. William Chester Minor, an inmate at an institution for the criminally insane. Through their shared passion for the dictionary, the men form a friendship that transcends Minor's past, his insantiy and even the dictionary itself.

    What I love about this book is its message of hope. Even for a person locked away in a mental institution, life can have purpose and meaning. Lifelong friendships can be formed. I admired Murray for his ability to see beyond Minor's past and present. I related to Minor for the tenacious way he clung to the dictionary, allowing it to become a life preserver keeping him afloat in the dark waters of his insanity.

    Enhancing the experience of this book is the fact that it is narrated by the author, Simon Winchester. Winchester knows his material better than any other reader could, and he delivers it with heart and feeling.

    ADDED BONUS: At the end of the book you are treated to an interview with Mr. Winchester, who talks about Murray, Minor, their friendship and the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary.

    This listening experience is not to be missed!

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ron Sydney, Australia 06-25-09
    Ron Sydney, Australia 06-25-09 Member Since 2012

    Literary graduate and published columnist turned glorified grease monkey.

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    "Very informative and in some places funny"

    It is hard to be an etymologist without being a keen wordsmith, therefore it's no surprise that this book is written with meticulous language. The writer's attempts to be droll in points, will only really appeal to intellectuals but I still enjoyed this very much. I was amazed to learn how the first dictionaries were created with an emphasis on the origin of words as opposed to the meanings. And the fact that there is a story behind the history made it more interesting, but as a writer, this book expanded my vocabulary exponentially. And I loved the specific examples of words with interesting origins. Great book. Clearly well researched. Didn't really enjoy the narration, it was good that the writer was the reader but he needed to hire someone with a more pleasant tone.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Chris Reich Northern, CA 02-15-09
    Chris Reich Northern, CA 02-15-09 Member Since 2009

    Business Physicist and Astronomer

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    "Great story, Great Characters, Well Read"

    I had a long drive today---8 hours. Listened to this entire book, non-stop. WOW. I loved every minute of it.

    Not only a fascinating story, but when the author speculates, he says so and why. I really loved it.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Daniel Westfield, Indiana, United States 11-11-05
    Daniel Westfield, Indiana, United States 11-11-05 Member Since 2015
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    "Great book and good interview at end."

    I found this audio book to be quite nice. The history mixed with a murder story made the introduction of lexicographical history information very easy to swallow. Author as the reader seems to worked out quite nicely this time, as Mr. Winchester has a wonderful presence when reading his work. I especially liked the additional interview at the end of the recording.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Lisa Chicago, IL, USA 06-09-04
    Lisa Chicago, IL, USA 06-09-04
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    "Engaging and well-read by author"

    A surprisingly intriguing true-life story, for once well-read by the author. Slightly repetitive, with a bit of not-terribly-relevant filler material. But Winchester knows his subject and the era well, and anyone who dotes on the OED will find its history entertaining. A good listen for a long car trip.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Novie Kailua Kona, HI, United States 04-16-04
    Novie Kailua Kona, HI, United States 04-16-04 Member Since 2012

    Retired nightclub performer/computer technician, I now teach hula and ukulele to seniors, and record Hawaiian music for my halau!

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Utterly Fascinating!"

    What a gifted storyteller! Truth is MUCH BETTER than fiction, especially when recounted by Simon Winchester. I loved the book. Winchester's ability to present details in an absorbing and intelligent style captivated me from the beginning. His knowledge of the material and the of the era was immediately apparent.

    I never wondered about how dictionaries are created and I felt like I was right there while it was happening. Winchester's eye for detail about the smallest things put me there in the time period. It is really an unbelievable story, and I thoroughly enjoyed every unabridged moement. I'll read it again, I'm sure.

    Winchester's narration is flawless. There is such a difference listening to a person present his own work, rather than someone who is just "reading" a book. With Winchester, all the nuances, the inflections, the pauses, the style in which he wrote the narrative is faithfully reproduced in his charming voice. What can I say? I'm a FAN!

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Marintha 05-01-08
    Marintha 05-01-08
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    "Ode to an ode to the English Language"

    Riveting book - charming Victorian prose. Winchester makes excellent use of the English language in writing this ode to the OED (which is, itself, an ode to English itself). Charles Hodgson (of podictionary.com) chose perfectly in recommending this.

    12 of 14 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ilinca Romania 12-10-13
    Ilinca Romania 12-10-13 Member Since 2013
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    "fascinating little thing"

    **some spoilers ahead**
    It's a rather flimsy, but thoroughly enjoyable little incursion into the story of William Chester Minor, one of the most important contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. The relevant arc starts with him as a surgeon in the Union Army and ends with his death back in the States.
    I call it flimsy because it's only interesting or important in the sense that we all like to pry into the hidden lives of celebrities, and this touches that exact chord.
    It is, nevertheless, fascinating. Minor served during the Civil War and, the theory goes, had a crucial moment when he was forced to brand an Irish deserter. We don't know that this is what caused his sexual obsessions (wouldn't it be weird if it did), but it was almost certainly what caused his belief that Irish men were constantly after him, invading his room at night and performing strange rituals on him. Increasingly erratic, sexually obsessed and paranoid, he was admitted to a lunatic asylum, which - as happened more often than not in those days - did nothing to cure or improve his condition. He left for England, where, one might almost say "in due course", he shot a man and was then incarcerated, in a modern move, at the Broadmoor asylum. And here he was to stay for over 30 years, settling into very comfortable quarters and carrying on with the exact same paranoid delusions about Irish men springing up from the floorboards at night and taking him to various brothels where he was forced to perform shameful sexual acts on girls. Nighttime delusions notwithstanding, he also managed to accumulate an impressive collection of books and contribute a huge number of entries and quotations to the OED, while at some point also cutting off his penis to punish himself for compulsive masturbation.
    The book is also interesting in its tangential details about Broadmoor and the making of the OED. All in all, as I said, flimsy but interesting.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
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