Of books and bullets

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of
Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford
English Dictionary
by Simon
I know I’m late to
the party on this one. When this book was published in the late ’90s, I
thought, That sounds interesting. Then tons of people read it, and I never did,
till now, when we selected it for a special book club.
And it was
basically what I expected—readable, yet erudite. But a little bit slow-moving,
despite the fact that a crazed murderer was one of the main characters. Interesting
little twist there, eh?
So this book has a
plot that remind me a little bit of The
Devil in the White City
: historic true crime (Devil: creepy serial killer;
Professor: Civil War doctor who shot a man in London) combined with a rather
uplifting story of the undertaking of an unlikely feat that, if successful,
would benefit society (Devil: the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair; Professor: the
Oxford English Dictionary).
The sneaky thing Winchester does in this
book is make you think the professor (James Murray, who led the OED committee)
thought the “madman” (Dr. W.C. Minor) was a doctor at the asylum where he
resided, rather than a patient. But it turns out, Winchester is just letting us in on the
version of the story that was told at the time. In reality, he informs us,
Professor Murray knew Dr. Minor was an inmate all along. Sneaky, say I.
I knew the OED
wasn’t built in a day, and indeed, it wasn’t built in a decade. I didn’t fully appreciate the amount of work that went into
that encyclopedic monster of a dictionary. So now I’ll have a different, warmer
thought every time I walk by it at work, and especially when I consult it. It
has a pretty darn remarkable story of its own, murderer or no.  

2 thoughts on “Of books and bullets

  1. This book is one that I would definitely read again! I see it from time to time in the British edition..which has a different title that's not quite as catchy.

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