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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

Critic Reviews

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

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

Overall

  • 4.1 out of 5.0
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Performance

  • 4.3 out of 5.0
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Story

  • 4.2 out of 5.0
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  • Overall

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.

13 of 15 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • David
  • warren, AR, United States
  • 04-11-03

Engagingly written and fascinating.

Well researched, well written, and above all, a Great story!

Thanks Winchester!

15 of 19 people found this review helpful

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  • Story

A Story of Murder and Redemption

“I think that people like…the rituals of lexicography. They find it romantic; they find the story of dictionary making something that, if they can get to it painlessly and through the story of a murderer and the American Civil War..they find it an agreeable thing to do...” Thus, Simon Winchester in his discussion with John Simpson, editor of the OED, that appears as the last cut of this recording. And he’s right; listening to this book is a very agreeable thing to do.

I admit that, at the start I had some personal preferences to overcome. Except for Manchester and Reid’s biography of Churchill (and books written by Churchill himself) I avoid history written by journalists. Just as professional historians can tend to dullness, journalists can err on the side of breeziness, a lightness of touch that fails to get at the true gist of a subject.

In his acknowledgements Winchester takes full responsibility, of course, for any missteps and the farthest thing from my mind is to be ungenerous. This book is indeed a wonderful listen. But when I hear that the American Civil War was fought over “patches of land at Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, Antietam and scores of other unsung and unremembered trophies…” I cringe. The fighting wasn’t about territory per se; except for Vicksburg, the strategic value of those fields was temporary at best. Rather than “trophies” to be collected, when the smoke cleared both side moved on. The resonance of those place names is, on the other hand, more durable; they are far from being “unsung and unremembered”.

More seriously, in a book about lexicography and dictionary-making we have a right to expect verbal precision; indeed, the subject put me on higher alert for it than usual. So, when Winchester lists “muskets” among the “new weapons” that filled so many graves and hospital beds, I cringed again. The weapon that created so many casualties was a refinement on the musket—far more accurate at far greater ranges—called the rifle (or rifled) musket.

Please understand that I’m not trying to be picky or pedantic. Slips like these just make me wary of the overall quality of any book. I persisted, partly because Winchester is such a superb reader, partly because he’s such a superb writer. Mostly because his real subject—not an overview of our Civil War but the making of the greatest English dictionary—is so gripping. The brief history of the evolution of the English dictionary alone is worth the price of admission (in the 17th Century only “hard” words were included). We learn what set Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary above all previous efforts, how the Oxford English Dictionary came about in the first place, how the son of a Scottish draper ended up at the helm of this majestic project and, most amazing of all, how a certified criminal lunatic from America (by way of Ceylon) came to be one of the OED’s most important contributors. It is indeed what Winchester calls it in the discussion at the end of this recording: a story of murder and redemption.

If you love our language, revel in its literature and spend at least a few minutes every other day or so wondering, “Now, where did that word come from?” this book is for you.

There is a myriad of points I’d like to discuss with Winchester over drinks (I’d even buy). For example, he can’t imagine Shakespeare writing without a reference book that told him if he were using a word correctly, or spelling it right, or being grammatical. I always supposed that’s what set Shakespeare—and Spencer, and Sydney, and Donne—free. Having turned my own hand to the crafting of publication-worthy verse, I’ve often envied Stratford-Upon-Avon’s favorite son for the license he enjoyed, coining words as he went. While I’m all for rules and regularization, I suspect they’re what stands between us and another Elizabethan age. Agree or disagree, points like this are just another aspect of this book that makes it so engaging.

I particularly appreciated Winchester’s coda, a solemn reminder that, as painful and yet uplifting as Doctor Minor’s story is, we should not forget the tragedy that set everything in motion: the doctor’s random murder of a husband and father and the fates of his wife and children.

Finally, though I never do more than skim (if that) over an author’s acknowledgements page, this one received my full attention. Only fitting, I thought, for a book about giving due credit for the creation of a book.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Story

good to fall asleep to

Unfortunately the story on the dust jacket was more interesting than the contents of this book. This is the kind of historical event that should have been a fifteen page article, tops, and everything else involved in the retelling was superfluous. I found it super useful for falling unconscious to; I'd put it on in fifteen minute increments before bed, and never really felt I was missing anything.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Story

Wonderfully Bizarre

Any additional comments?

A wonderfully bizarre story about a mentally ill doctor that significantly contributed to the making of the Oxford dictionary. This one is enjoyable as it is strange. Defiantly worth a listen.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Story

not my regular choice

but super enjoyable! Educational, but not heavy handed about it. The story was interesting and it played along well with the narration, done by the author himself!

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Story

Brilliant

Suberbly researched. Very very interesting.
Totally gripped by whole history. I had believed the fictional version!

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Story

Great Listen

Any additional comments?

This is a great book - covers a lot of parallel history while not being dry.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Cindy
  • United States
  • 03-04-12

Interesting

I learned a lot from this book about dictionary making. It was an interesting story. I was happy I spent the time.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Story

Loved it

Very engaging and interesting story. Well told with a lot of information about dictionaries that was new and interesting.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful