Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester

Imagine that you could only have one book.

Would it be The Bible? Finnegan's Wake? The complete works of Shakespeare? What book could you imagine that would be endlessly edifying and useful, as well as dependably entertaining?

I refuse to make a choice, even hypothetically, that narrows all of literature to a single volume. However, if forced, one could do worse than to choose a really good dictionary. I love my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language; I have copies at home and at work. But the original work that sought to define "the meaning of everything" in English was the Oxford English Dictionary.

In The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester has written the story of the OED, concentrating on the efforts of two men. James Murray, the professor, dedicated his life to the dictionary because he loved language, literature, and scholarship. W.C. Minor, the madman, shared those motivations, but he was also in need of an occupation to stave off the madness. His extreme dedication to the dictionary project was made possible by his incarceration in an insane asylum.

The process of creating the dictionary involved thousands of volunteers, combing through books in search of definitive and distinctive examples of words, which they sent, along with examples of their use, to the headquarters of the Oxford Press. From five million collected, 414,825 words were selected. The project took more than 68 years. (Murray was the first editor; at the time of his death the dictionary was about half finished.)

The professor and the madman were kindred spirits, despite the disparity in their social status. I felt that the defining exchange came late in their association, when Murray reached out to Minor in gratitude and friendship, offering him a distinctive gift. He sent him something only a few people on earth would recognize as a treasure (but the people who enjoy this book certainly agree it is)--the newly completed entry for the word "take." (It covered several pages and had taken months to compile.)

This is hardly a gripping adventure story. But there is drama in it, and passion. If you love words, it's worth a read. I enjoyed the feeling of being present at the creation of the great dictionary, which was an amazingly ambitious project and in its completion, a triumph of cooperative effort.


Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to your reviews! I had forgotten about this book. I don't have a good dictionary - should get one. When I was a kid, I would read the dictionary and the encyclopedia.

I've read some good books this summer:
The Kite Runner
Digging to America
That Old Ace in the Hole (Annie Proulx)
The Madonnas of Leningrad
The Satanic Verses (Salman Rushdie)


Sara said...

I've actually just finished reading this book. I really enjoyed it. It took me a little while to get into it (I picked it up and put it down for about 3 months before it became a "must read" in my mind) but once I did I thoroughly enjoyed it.