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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Reading the OED and The Professor and the Madman

I have recently read two unconnected but closely related non-fiction books: Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, by Ammon Shea, and The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester. Probably I should have read them in the reverse order, but it was Shea’s 2008 book that impelled me to go back and read Winchester’s, which was written ten years earlier.

As the subtitle to Shea’s book suggests, he successfully took on the self-assigned task of reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary in a year. You may wonder why anyone would do such a thing — one of my colleagues would uncharitably claim that Shea must have too muich time on his hands — but never mind, the book is well worth reading on several counts even without a compelling answer to that question. First of all, any reader has to be simply astounded that anyone could accomplish such a feat: it has a fascination similar to any story of the accomplishment of a long-lasting unlikely challenge. Second, the details surrounding the endeavor are of interest to any compulsive reader (not that I would know anyone in that category), ranging from Shea’s physical arrangements for the effort to the effects on his eyes, his body, and his relationships. Third, Reading the OED does not merely recount the story of what Shea did but also includes lots of notes on many interesting words that he encountered along the way. Definitely a niche book, I suppose, but go read it if you’re a lover of words and dictionaries. And if you didn’t grow up with a dictionary in every room, it’s never too late to start.

Winchester’s book is much more of a popularization. Basically it tells the tale of two men in Victorian England: James Murray, “the professor” and the principal editor of the OED for decades during the creation of its first edition; and Dr. William Chester Minor, “the madman” and the most prolific contributor of source material to the OED over the same decades. I wish this book had been around during my father’s life, not only because he was a lover of words and dictionaries but also because of one of the stories he used to tell as a psychiatrist. It concerned a visitor to the large mental hospital where my father was the director; the visitor stopped to ask for directions from the first person he saw, and the reply turned out to be detailed, complex, and accurate. It turned out that the person giving directions was a patient in the hospital. When the visitor expressed surprise, the reply was, “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.”

I’m sure you’ve heard that line before in other contexts, but this (probably apocryphal) story is the context for it that always sticks in my mind. It continued to resonate for me in The Professor and the Madman, where Minor is portrayed as a deeply paranoid schizophrenic who spent most of his adult life confined to the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, as a sentence for shooting a man whom he had mistakenly believed to have broken into his apartment. Winchester tells the entwined stories of Murray and Minor, but mostly Minor’s, which is the more fascinating or the more sensationalistic one, depending on your view of such things. In any case, I did find it fascinating, but I wish there had been more details of the lexicographic procedures used for researching a writing a gigantic dictionary in pre-computer days. If you’re not a dictionary lover, read it for the story of Minor’s life and mind; if you are a dictionary lover, read it not only for that story but also for the account of how the OED was constructed. And, in either case, read it as intellectual history: Winchester’s portrait of the times provides more than just a glimpse of what was happening in Britain then.

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