There had to be a reason I kept seeing this book on “best of" lists. After reading the first chapter, I figured out why. The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester is not just the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) came to be, it is also the story of a very violent crime.
The OED is 22 volumes of brilliant reference work, beloved by librarians and logophiles everywhere. It doesn’t just give the reader the definition of a word; it gives us the word’s entire life story.
It was started in the 1850s by an Englishman named Dr. James Murray. It would be a huge job and could not be done without a group of volunteer academics. One of them was an American by the name of Dr. William Chester Minor.
W.C. Minor was an interesting guy. He was from an old, well-regarded New England family, a graduate of Yale University, a surgeon, a captain in the Union Army, a man with cultured and literary inclinations and one of the most prolific contributors to the OED. He was also a convicted murderer, a schizophrenic, referred to by the English criminal system as a “certified criminal lunatic,” and a resident of Broadmoor Lunatic asylum, where at one time during his stay he cut off his own penis.
It’s an interesting and sad story that takes place along with the development of one of the greatest literary undertakings of all time. Perhaps an even more interesting story here is how genius often lies alongside mental illness.
The Meaning of Everything: The Professor and the Madman was not Simon Winchester's first stab at the Oxford English Dictionary. Here's his 2004 treatment of the same subject.
Reading the OED: Why doesn't it surprise me that a guy with a name like Ammon would write a book like this?