I’d always meant to read something by Simon Winchester, and The Professor and the Madman was the title of his that most appealed to me. When I needed a new audiobook, I decided to give this one a try. Thankfully, my library had a copy.
About the Book:
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is the story of the OED, but it is also the story of two men. First, there is James Murray, one of the editors of the massive lexical undertaking that is the OED. Second, there is W.C. Minor, the eccentric and uniquely positioned volunteer who contributed thousands upon thousands of quotations to the dictionary. Winchester examines not only the lives of the two men, but how their lives intersected and affected the OED as well as some history of the OED itself.
The Professor and the Madman really was a treat to listen to. I learned all sorts of things about the Oxford English Dictionary, including why it was needed, how it was assembled, and how long the project ended up taking. As someone who enjoys words and languages, I was fascinated by this aspect of the book. At times, it kind of made me want to crack open a good dictionary…though thankfully, the urge quickly passed!
Twined around this history, Winchester adds another level by examining one of the dictionary’s several editors (Murray) and one of its most prolific volunteers (Minor). Minor’s was the more fascinating background to me, and I was interested to hear how his unique position allowed him to be such a help to Murray and the rest of the OED staff. I’ll let you uncover Minor’s tale yourself; suffice to say that even Murray was shocked when he discovered who his great helper really was.
Winchester blends history and biography together, dipping into each as needed, with a skill like Bill Bryson’s — though admittedly without Bryson’s cheeky wit. Humor aside, Winchester’s writing was intelligent and articulate, both easy and enjoyable to read. He is obviously an author and researcher with the skill to bring his chosen subject to life, and I’m definitely interested to read more of his books.
Winchester himself reads the audiobook. I’m always leery of such situations, as often I’ve found authors do not make the best readers. Winchester, however, was an exception. He read at a lively pace; his tone was conversational and engaging. Sometimes with nonfiction audiobooks I find myself drifting off now and then, but in this case I never had that problem.
Overall, The Professor and the Madman was a well-written account of a piece of fascinating but little known history. It will appeal to readers interested in history, words, and odd little stories everywhere.
What fascinating, little known stories have you uncovered in your reading lately?