Monday, November 21, 2011

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Written by: Simon Winchester

First line: In Victorian London, even in a place as louche and notoriously crime-ridden as Lambeth Marsh, the sound of gunshots was a rare event.

Why you should read this book: A fascinating historical volume, it recounts the tale of three protagonists, two human and one comprising ideas made manifest. The Oxford English Dictionary is the most ambitious and complete catalog of the English language, which took the better part of a century to compose; its chief editor, Professor James Murray, was a determined autodidact with a single-minded devotion to the task, while one of its chief contributors, Dr. William Chester Minor, was a paranoid schizophrenic murderer who completed his work, and indeed lived more than half his life, confined to an asylum for the criminally insane. The story of these three lives (for indeed, the book has a life of its own and is very much a character in the story) unfolds with wonderful pacing, humor, sympathy, and intelligence.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You have a very small vocabulary, and you'd like to keep it that way.

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