The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Professor and the Madman wavers between pleasant and prolix. I guess I should have predicted a book about the writing of the most famous dictionary ever known would tend toward magniloquence (yes, I had to look that up in the OED), but the writing is so overstuffed with words that it leans toward purple prose.
Winchester is fond of showcasing his own vocabulary by using words with similar meanings all strung together. An example from a random page: “An asylum was to Doctor Johnson no more than a sanctuary, a refuge.”
He also is big on adding imaginary details, such as the sputtering of candles and the whistles of Guy Fawkes fireworks. This kind of “detail” is added with such a heavy hand that it becomes clear a lot of the book is less fact than prettily constructed/reconstructed ideas of what maybe the facts could have been.
As another reviewer noted, there was a great deal less about the actual construction of the OED than I would have liked, and a whole lot more going on and on and on about how tragic Dr. Minor’s life must have been… despite only some sketchy real details. I guess you are welcome to pity a lunatic who murdered a man, even while he is well-cared-for and given extra privileges the other asylum-folk did not have, but the whole of his life seemed very humane and civilized to me—and he was unquestionably a danger to others, so what else of a choice was there? (I even found myself wondering if a modern-day Dr. Minor would have been given the same care. My conclusion: probably not.)
The story is also told in leaps and starts, flitting around to whatever part seems best for Winchester rather than a logical unspooling. That’s fine, but also detracts some from the book’s nonfiction standing and makes it tricky to follow in points.
All in all, an okay book and an acceptable diversion, but it says something that I preferred the cannily selected dictionary entries at the start of each chapter over the actual chapter in several spots!