"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Wonder of 'The Professor and the Madman'

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At some point, I began feeling that I was watching a great pyramid being built. Only this was not a pyramid of Egyptian stone. It was a pyramid of paper scrolls, each containing one English word, its definition, and its context in the language—one scroll for every word in the language. This physical pyramid of paper filled me with awe for one of the greatest, vastest undertakings in the history of humankind.

The above paragraph is my primary takeaway after reading Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Here is a story of the epic making of an epic work of English literature. As the title indicates, it is also the tale of two different men who wound up on the same journey of a lifetime.

As someone who has read and thoroughly enjoyed two previous books by Mr. Winchester, dealing with large scale events and ideas, I found myself taken by this book’s intimacy. So much of it happens in rooms crammed with books. Yet, as is his interdisciplinary style, Winchester weaves different subjects together in an accessible, thoughtful, even entertaining manner.

Suffice it to say, the making of a dictionary can be as engrossing as a tale of murder. The making of a dictionary or a murderer can also be the story of a demographic, a class, or an entire country at war with itself. One mistake would be to assume dictionaries are only made by the bookish people who read them. Another mistake would be to assume murderers are fundamentally evil persons who have done something we would never do.

I highly recommend The Professor and the Madman, as I also recommend Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded and Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms & a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. Experience your world, your heritage, and your language, as they relate inextricably to each other.

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