The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester chronicles the origins and development of the Oxford English Dictionary. One would assume the history of a dictionary—even one as illustrious as the OED—would be dry. But thanks to the colorful character of William Chester Minor and the skillful treatment of Simon Winchester, the tale was riveting.
Minor, an American suffering from mental illness that led him to commit a murder, was incarcerated for most of his life in an asylum in England for the criminally insane. He was a brilliant intellectual with a lot of time on his hands.
When Dr. James Murray, the editor of the OED, put out a call for volunteers to assist in compiling definitions for the dictionary, Minor answered the call with unparalleled commitment and fervor. He worked systematically and industriously on the project for years. His contributions (over 10,000 definitions) to the creation of the OED were critical, earning him the respect and friendship of Dr. Murray.
Winchester is a master story-teller. His writing is engaging, informative, and peppered with a great sense of humor. He tells us in the opening pages of Minor’s prodigious contribution to the OED and of his residency in the insane asylum, a fact unknown to the sedate James Murray until they finally meet after 20 years of working together. Winchester builds up the suspense so we are anxious for the meeting to take place. Weaving in and out of their stories is a description of the painstaking and time-consuming work that went into the creation of the OED, a 20-volume project that was 70 years in the making.
Winchester takes what could have been a boring subject if executed by less skilled hands and turns it into an entertaining, informative, and fascinating story of the compilation of an epic achievement in the English language and of the two individuals instrumental in its creation.