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The Language of Empire
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
© 2012 James LaFond
The Professor and the Madman
A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Simon Winchester
1998, Harper Collins, 242 pages
Illustrated by Philip Hood
I have rightly been accused of being a niche writer with a gift for finding an ever more obscure niche to serve as my literary stage. I, however, would never suppose that I could write, let alone sell, a book about the making of a dictionary. How does one convince a wide body of readers to read a book about a type of book that few people care to read?
My first suspicion upon learning that Mister Winchester’s book had been a national bestseller was that readers were mostly interested in the ‘madman’ part, and that the author would play to that. The story the author set out to tell is a convoluted, fascinating, and disturbing tale with as happy an ending as a realist could hope for. The tale winds its way from exotic Ceylon, to the battlefields of the American Civil War, through the dank gas lit streets of Victorian London, and into her rarified courtrooms and academic halls, and seems ever to recede into the abyss of 19th Century insane asylums.
The author never loses sight of his three protagonists; the professor, the madman, and the massive book that took hundreds of scholars seven decades to write. If there is a unifying theme I would have to say it is serendipity, a quality overworked in fiction, which makes for much good nonfiction. Two of my favorite aspects of the book were the fact that it was illustrated with moody black and whites and that the author selected an Oxford definition to head off each of the 15 sections of the book.
Simon Winchester chose his subject well, and did a lively job of writing his way through a mess that would have baffled many of his colleagues. If you can read this sentence you should read The Professor and the Madman.
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