With the Internet at our fingertips, searching for the proper words and their definitions has never been faster or easier. But when I was young, the dictionary was one of the staple books that every household had, along with the encyclopedia. I never had the appreciation for the centuries of effort it took lexicographers to compile all the words of the English language into an accessible tome that all of us use to this day until I read Simon Winchester's "tale of murder, insanity and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary."
"The Professor and the Madman" documents the true story of the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED, one of the most ambitious projects in literary history. One may not think that the story of the dictionary would be of particular intrigue, but this tale focuses on the two most crucial men who made the entire task possible.
Professor James Murray, who headed the OED project, sent out a request for thousands of volunteers to read through volumes of books to select rare or unusual words that may not have been included in previous dictionaries, and to send in their finds to his committee.
One volunteer stood out among the rest, whose passion for language and reading drove him to contribute more information than anyone else involved with the OED. This volunteer, Dr. William Chester Minor, is revealed as a man with a fascinating history and an incredible dedication toward his work. He was also a 30-year inmate of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.
So unravels a story about how these two men, from different histories and positions in life, crossed paths and contributed to this prestigious task, a work that took 70-some years to complete.
While this novel would mostly appeal to readers who have a deep interest in literary history, "The Professor and the Madman" is equally enjoyable for those in need of an enlightening read. Winchester maintains a good balance between his research of the events and his deeper look into the relationships and psyches of the characters. The book focuses moreso on Dr. Minor than Professor Murray, with the chapters regarding Murray centering more on the dictionary than him - so I wish we could have learned more about what kind of man Murray was. In fact, there is a noticeable change in the storytelling when the story switches off from Minor to Murray, as if to indicate the two different worlds each man came from.
The most striking point is how through a series of melancholy events - from the horrors of war to dementia to even the unintentional murder of an innocent - came the product of what is arguably the most important compilation of the English language ever created.
It is when the two men finally arrange to meet one another, after corresponding for 17 years without having ever met, when we reach the most touching part of the tale. In it, we see how even in the face of complete mania and delusion there can be friendship, forgiveness and even a personal sense of redemption.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.