The Professor and the Madman
by Simon Winchester
Harper Perennial 1998
Have you looked at the Oxford English Dictionary lately? It is a massive volume, originally published in the 1880s and 1890s in many volumes. It required the work of a small army of philologists who mined words from ancient and then current manuscripts, which work was coordinated by a group of experts at Oxford.
Most of us probably do not consult the heavy tome of a dictionary often. Rather, if there is something we want to look-up, we go to Google or Wikipedia. These modern conventions, in essence, provide an electronic or digital means of finding information.
Each of us also has a full range of data, files, and so on to organize in our business and personal lives. I am frequently amazed at how difficult it is to devise and maintain a filing system where I can put my little hands on what is needed without chaos blowing into my life like a tornado.
The Professor and the Madman is a story about the process of preparation of the Oxford English Dictionary at a time when everything had to be done by hand and slips of paper, which amounted to hundreds of thousands of pages! “The Professor” is James Murray who ended up at Oxford.
“The Madman” is Dr. W. C. Minor, an American who had been a Civil War battlefield surgeon who immigrated to London. Dr. Minor had an attic full of demons in his mind, who he imagined to be constantly on the warpath against him. He believed that the demons assaulted him in the night, stole him away to be used for all manner of sexual perversions, and damaged his library. In one fit of imagination, he spied a demon was in his bedroom, grabbed a gun, chased the demon outside, and shot him dead. Unfortunately, the dead man was the father of many children on his way to work. Dr. Minor was then incarcerated in an insane asylum for the remainder of his life.
He had a prodigious library in the asylum (a whole different story) and learned of the dictionary project and became one of the principal authors of the work.
This is phenomenally engaging story all by itself. It is mind-numbing to me to imagine the mental gymnastics and perseverance required to assemble the data, both by Dr. Minor and the team of Professor Murray. The wiring of Simon Winchester flows smoothly.
I was fascinated by thinking how I could extract from this description a means of organizing my own life and materials.
While you find it odd, even humorous, to think of reading about the Oxford English Dictionary, you will actually find this to be a thoroughly mind-opening process.
Reading Guide Questions