Friday, July 30, 2010

BOOK: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, 242 pages
also known as The Surgeon of Crowthorne

Nonfiction Five 2010; Our Mutual Read; Bibliophilic Challenge

Imagine how the first dictionary was written. How do they find all the words without leaving any out? I mean, all the words. It turns out to have been a many decade-long (seventy) process, to produce the Oxford English Dictionary. In this book, Winchester documents an interesting aspect of the making of this famous dictionary - Dr William Minor, one of the most consistent and prolific contributors, who lived in an asylum in England for the criminally insane for most of his adult life.

The book covers several stories - Dr Minor, his years in the American civil war, Professor James Murray and his role as main editor, the history of dictionary writing before the OED, life in an asylum, mental illness, the murder of George Merrett, and the dictionary itself. I liked the Victorian times, and how Winchester included so much information, without feeling like overload. Each chapter begins with a pertinent word's listing from the OED, giving people like me, who have never read from the OED, an idea of what it was like.  My only complaint is that by including so much extra information, Winchester sometimes inserted a random fact that just seems out of place, and inserted his views or biases of people or ideas. Nymeth discussed this in detail this week as well. My example was this one, in discussing Murray's friendships.

One was a Trinity College, Cambridge, mathematician named Alexander Ellis, and the other a notoriously pig-headed, colossally rude phonetician named Henry Sweet - the figure on whom Bernard Shaw would later base his character Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, which was transmuted later into the eternally popular My Fair Lady (in which Higgins was played, in the film, by the similarly rude and pigheaded actor Rex Harrison). p37

Bam! Rex Harrison never saw that sucker-punch coming! Was he rude and pigheaded? I never knew that was common knowledge but I don't think it added to the story Winchester was originally telling. That sentence stopped me in my tracks for all the information in it and the judgments. But, that was a small aside in an otherwise interesting book that tries to give some honour to the murdered, wrong place wrong time George Merrett and his role in the making of the dictionary. (Without this murder, Minor would never have been in an asylum with no treatment and so much time on his hands to be able to contribute like he did.)

also reviewed: nymeth at things mean a lot, lori at she treads softly,