August 07, 2009

The Professor and the Madman

This Book, by Simon Winchester, BLEW. MY. MIND.

Reading the Preface alone made me stop reading to check and make sure I was not reading a fiction book instead of nonfiction. This fascinating story of two of the most important "authors" of the Oxford English Dictionary ( yes, this IS my second book about the are not having de ja vue) is SO incredibly over the top you're honestly going to have trouble believing it. But, apparently, this is truth ( or as close as we can get) and I feel like Winchester did a great job of weaving this story together in such an enjoyable way, that you, too, might find yourself getting lost in this lost, in fact, that you'll sit in the sun for two to three hours at a time for days on end, without realizing it and come away with a terrific tan. ;-)

So, to give you a tiny run down of this book ( without giving way the really juicy stuff), the undertaking of documenting and defining all the words in the English Language was not the task of just one man, but many people sending in words and quotations from literature and other writings in which the word was used. Hundreds of thousands slips of paper where submitted for over 23 years to finally complete the first edition of the OED. This book looks at the conception and beginnings of the making of the English Languages most Mighty Dictionaries, and most importantly on one of its word-submitters, one of the most prolific and detailed, who ultimately played a huge roll in "defining" the English Language. Oh, and he just so happened to be a murder who lived in an insane asylum.
While this story is understandable fantastical and could have been easily taken the "hollywood" exploitation route, I felt like the auther did a great job of looking at the principal characters of this story in a respectful and sensitive way. I came away, just as I did when I read The Man who Made Lists, the story of Peter Roget, the creator of the Roget's Thesaurus-feeling that we can thank a great lack of modern understanding of medicine for mental illness-for some of our most important works...the thesaurus AND the dictionary!
While this story is incredibly sad, it is also amazing and touching to think how a man was able to still make a worthy and important mark on society for generations to come-even though he struggled with very serious mental issues.

*warning*: There is a very disturbing and graphic scene towards the end of this book...and therefore should not be read by the faint at heart, and not given to your children to read until you've done a read through!

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