The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman


Goodreads: The Professor and the Madman
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: 1998


The Oxford English Dictionary took over seventy years to complete.  Prof. James Murray is one of its most famous editors.  Less known is that Dr. William Chester Minor, a veteran of the American Civil War and an inmate at a mental institution, contributed research for thousands of words.  Simon Winchester details their stories in The Professor and the Madman.


Like many, I have a keen appreciation for the OED and the incredible amount of information it has collected.  I was eager, then, to read more about its history.  However, as the title might suggest, this book is not really about the OED or how it was compiled.  Rather, it is the biographies of James Murray, one of the editors, and Dr. William Chester Minor, a murderer sentenced to live out his days in a mental asylum.  Some might find their stories fascinating but, because I wanted to hear about the OED, I did not appreciate the book as much as I might have, had I expected to be reading biographies in the first place.

Sadly, the book never really managed to draw me in.  The story repeatedly ends segments with “hooks” conveying how surprising and weird these lives are.  However, simply telling me that something is surprising is not the same as actually making the story feel surprising.  Reading the book unexpectedly felt a bit like a chore.

If I could not have learned more about the making of the OED, I would have settled for more on Prof. James Murray.  However, the bulk of the book seems to focus on Dr. Minor, whose murder of an innocent man and subsequent life slowly succumbing to his mental fantasies seem to be more intriguing to the author than the apparently fairly average home life of Murray.  Perhaps in future someone will give us a book that really tells the story of the OED.

3 Stars

8 thoughts on “The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

  1. iArtichokeu says:

    It’s a shame when a book tells you how surprising a situation is, rather than making you feel that way. I’ve run into these kind of situations. It’s always a bummer 😛


  2. Briana says:

    The Meaning of Everything is actually a much better book, especially in terms of giving the overall story of the OED–but also just in general as a book. I get the impression Winchester just really wanted to delve more into the lives of two of the characters from the OED’s story, but I generally recommend The Meaning of Everything over The Professor and the Madman,


  3. Brona says:

    I’m always fascinated by name changes in books between the US/UK(& Aust) markets. I read this book in Aust with the title The Surgeon of Crowthorne.

    I’m curious to know why the marketing people feel it’s necessary. I have the same wonder with Harry Potter & the Philodopher’s Stone, which is how everyone in the rest of the world read the first HP book (& even watched the first movie), while American’s only know …the Sorcerer’s Stone.


    • Krysta says:

      I’m pretty sure someone somewhere thought Americans weren’t bright enough to know what the philosopher’s stone was, so they changed the title for HP. I’m guessing The Surgeon of Crowthorne wasn’t sensational enough for American readers. Maybe Americans should be insulted. I don’t know! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. DoingDewey says:

    I find that books that don’t match my expectations are much less likely to be favorites for me! This sounds fascinating, but I would also be interested in a book that’s actually about the OED 🙂


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