In The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester delves into two contrasting yet similar personalities who helped to create the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). One is the professor, Dr. James Murray, a prolific scholar who undertakes the daunting task of creating a comprehensive dictionary; the other is a madman, Dr. William C. Minor, a schizophrenic American residing in England at an insane asylum for criminals and reading prolifically to find the words so needed for the dictionary.
The Professor and the Madman is not primarily about the making of the dictionary. (For a comprehensive history of the Oxford English Dictionary’s genesis and early creation, I would suggest The Meaning of Everything, also by Simon Winchester, which I also enjoyed.) Rather, The Professor and the Madman is a dual-biography of two odd characters, how they came together, and how they were different. While Winchester argues that the story has two protagonists, I felt that William C. Minor was the actual protagonist of this story. This was his story: how, despite madness, he could be of inestimable use to the makers of the dictionary.
Minor’s story was fascinating, as he was mentally ill in a day when there was no treatment for it. However, I didn’t find myself drawn to his character, nor did I want to know too much about his madness. To me, the most interesting aspects of this biography were the details about the dictionary making, which I had already read about in The Meaning of Everything.
That said, I highly enjoyed listening to the audiobook, as the author is the narrator and does an excellent job both at writing a compelling account and at reading it. For those interested in the making of the OED but not interested in the detailed “hows” behind it, I’d recommend The Professor and the Madman, which is a personality-driven account of how it was done, rather than the detailed historical account found in The Meaning of Everything.
I want to thank Rose City Reader for her great overview of the works by Simon Winchester. Upon reading her review, I recalled how much I enjoyed listening to Winchester’s other books and I remembered that I owned the audiobook for The Professor and the Madman. (How I forgot that I had it is a long story.) I look forward to reading (or listening) to others of Winchester’s works. They are always interesting and well done.
When you read a history, do you prefer a personality driven account (like a biography) or a historical account? I tend to think I’d prefer a biography, but this is a case where I preferred the historical review more.
In addition to The Professor and the Madman, I’ve read Krakatoa and The Meaning of Everything.
Note: If you listen to the audiobook, make sure you listen beyond the acknowledgements. There is a very interesting interview with the current editor of the OED.
If you have reviewed The Professor and the Madman, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add your link to this post.