The Professor and the Madman: Review

I heard myself mention to a friend one day, “I’m reading this great book about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” This comment was followed by a pause as I thought to myself, that feels like a weird thing to have just said, and as she (probably) thought to herself, this girl is getting geekier by the day.

The book truly is about how the OED came to be, but reads more like a novel. Simon Winchester gives his readers an appreciation for the magnum opus that is the dictionary. In a world without the Internet or other good dictionaries to use as precedents, the people working on this project had to read extensively, documenting and defining every new word they came about. The OED goes beyond this, though, because it includes examples of the word in context – examples that really make its meaning clear. And the dictionary makers were careful to include examples from different time periods, in order to show the changes in usage that a single word has undergone during its life. All of this had to be coordinated among a changing team of numerous contributors distributed across many locations (did I mention yet that there was no Internet? This feat alone blows my mind).

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In addition to imparting an appreciation for the complexity of the project, Simon Winchester shares much about two of the most influential men involved (the professor [James Murray] and the madman [William Minor]). Readers get a sense of these mens’ lives – for example, that William Minor was a doctor during the Civil War, forced to brand a deserter’s face with a hot iron – and how their pasts shaped the men they were as they worked on the project. There was hardly an antagonist (though there were characters that posed trouble at times). Instead, I was rooting for everyone all along – for Murray, Minor, and for the dictionary itself.

This book rekindled my appreciation of stories, quirky genius characters, words, and massive, seemingly intractable projects. It simultaneously inspired me, and made my own work feel like a picture book in comparison.

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