The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

the professor and the madmanAlmost ten years ago now, I called an old college roommate for help with my Christmas shopping. “I’d like to get a book for my dad,” I said, “but I have no idea what’s good in the type of books he likes.” Without missing a beat, she gave me two fabulous suggestions: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. The conversation was important to me for two reasons: first, I went away hoping to someday be able to rattle off book recommendations so easily (I’m getting there). Second, I ended up giving (and reading) a book to my dad that led to some great conversation.

The Professor and the Madman details the incredible story behind the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Just the idea of definitively catalouging the meaning, etymology, and examples of each word in the English language fascinated me. It’s not just a book for lovers of words, though. When the committee compiling the dictionary solicited definitions and examples from the learned community at large, a huge portion came from a single source: a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane. It’s one part the story of the massive work that went in to the O.E.D., one part a profile of James Murray (the lead editor of the dictionary) and Dr. Minor (the titular madman), and one part examination of the wonderfully weird thing that is language.

I recently started the book over again on audio, which might be an ever better vehicle for the story. The first time I read the book, I came away feeling that it might drag a bit for people without a passion for the dictionary. (And really, how many of us can there be at any given dinner party?) When the narrative gets deep into the details of a particular word, it can be a bit dry. I’ve found I’m much more patient with digression when I’m listening than when I’m reading; with a paper copy, I’m much more inclined to put the book down and forget to pick it back up.

In the end, it was a perfect fit for my dad. His vocabulary was unmatched, but he rarely ever defined words for us. “Look it up,” was his response. We both read the book and spent a fair chunk of time that winter talking about what we liked (and didn’t). If you’re thinking you might enjoy it, especially on audio, Audible has a decently long preview available here.

I would recommend this to: fans of too-strange-to-be-true history, logophiles, and anyone who’s ever wondered if the word “protagonist” can every truly be pluralized.



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