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 by Simon Winchester (cover)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.

My Thoughts:

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.

Those are my thoughts. Check out The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester on GoodReads or LibraryThing, read other bloggers’ reviews, or listen to an Audible sample!

Your Turn!

What fascinating, little known stories have you uncovered in your reading lately?

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    1. Thanks, Lindsay! This really was a fascinating book, and about a mix of topics I’d not have expected would go together.

  1. I’m really happy to read your account of this novel, not least of all because I have a friend who was always pushing me to read this book in university, but I never bothered to do so. And now I wish I had, because it does sounds quite cool and like something I would have enjoyed. But in my (feeble) defense, I really didn’t read anything that wasn’t school-related back in those days, which is certainly no longer the case! 😀

    1. It’s actually not a novel…just so you don’t pick it up expecting light fiction 🙂 You can still enjoy it, even if you’re no longer in university! It’s quite good, and not too long. I guess I’ll take over for your friend in pushing you toward it!

  2. I appreciate your review of this book since, I shamefully admit, although I have the book I’ve yet to read it thinking it might be some what dry, and tedious. It sounds like I’m quite wrong, silly me! I’ve always liked dictionaries so that this is about the creation of the OED is of great interest to me. But including the lives of the men behind the OED is a smart way to make this book more interesting to more people. It sounds to me like Simon Winchester succeeded on both counts…and now I’m anxious to read this book! Imagine being able to boast that you assisted in writing the OED!

    Great review, Erin!
    ~ Amy

    1. I was pleasantly surprised by how not dry or tedious this one was. If you’re interested in dictionaries already, I absolutely think you’ll enjoy The Professor and the Madman! The dictionary bits were especially fascinating. I’d never considered how one would go about creating a dictionary for an entire language…and before computers, at that! Enjoy 🙂

  3. What an interesting idea for a book. It makes perfect sense to have it, but a history about the dictionary isn’t something you’d think about every day. I definitely wouldn’t mind reading it.

    1. It’s not something I’d really thought about and was shocked by how much work (and how many years!) went into creating the OED. Really interesting stuff!

  4. I own a print copy of this book but haven’t read it yet–I think your review is the first I’ve seen for the book! Glad to hear it was so enjoyable. I should check and see if the audio is available at the library!

    1. I imagine it’d be good in print, too! I seem to get to books faster on audio, though (the queue isn’t as long), which is why I went that route. Enjoy 🙂

  5. I read this awhile ago, and was so fascinated by the story that it told. The story of how the dictionary was made was interesting, but the human side of the story was also something that made me stand up and take notice. I just remember thinking how remarkable it all was, and I am glad to hear that you had such a good time with it. I think I would be interested in reading another book by Winchester, as this one really blew me away. Wonderful review, Erin!

    1. It really was interesting the way Winchester blended the dictionary with the two men’s lives! I learned so much and enjoyed myself in the process. I’ll definitely be reading more by Winchester at some point.

    1. Winchester picks really interesting topics, doesn’t he? Now that I know he’s a good writer, I’m looking forward to checking out some of his others.

  6. I liked this enough to go out and get Winchester’s other book about the OED, The Meaning of Everything. He’s got a knack for picking out the vivid detail to report — truth is ever so much stranger than fiction.

  7. I’ve been intrigued by this one for a long time and you’ve convinced me that it must be read (or listened to as the case may be!). I heard Winchester speaking at the Commonwealth Club on NPR the other day and the man is absolutely fascinating.

  8. I really liked reading Simon Winchester — I haven’t read anything by him for a long time though. If you want to know even MORE about the OED, read THE MEANING OF EVERYTHING. it’s kind of the same thing, just about the dictionary, though, not about the madman.

    I like Krakatoa too. I can’t remember the others I liked by him.

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