Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester was probably a case of choosing a book by its cover. I love to do that, even though it’s not unusual that it doesn’t pan out. It’s the designer in me. I so love good design, that I assume good design = good book. Irrational, I know but…

I would say this book mostly lives up to its cover potential.

The subtitle is “A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” That’s a big subtitle to live up to, however. Again, it does a pretty fair job here as well.

Basically the book is about one of the biggest contributors to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. It begins with the story of the head editor wanting to meet the prolific contributor to whom he owed so much. When the man refused to travel to Oxford, the director, Dr. Murray, decided to travel to meet Dr. Minor, the recluse, for himself. Arriving at a large ostentatious home and being directed to the owner's office, Dr. Murray begins his speech of gratitude. The man behind the desk then informs Murray that he is not in fact Dr. Minor, but rather the warden. You see, Dr. Murray has traveled to an insane asylum in which Dr. Minor is a patient. Great beginning!

The book merges two stories, that of Dr. Minor and his struggle with mental illness, culminating in a lifelong incarceration in an asylum after murdering a random stranger and the making of the famous Oxford English Dictionary. Both are fascinating.

However, I think I found the story of the dictionary’s beginnings more interesting. The book grew out of an interest in the mid 1800s to standardize the English language. “It took more than seventy years to create the twelve tombstone-size volumes that made up the first edition of what was to become the great Oxford English Dictionary…. The OED’s guiding principle, the one that has set it apart from most other dictionaries, is its rigorous dependence on gathering quotations from published or otherwise recorded uses of English and using them to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language.” They believed this to be the best way to show the subtlety of the definitions of the word as well as to trace its heritage. Remember, this is pre-internet, pre-Google. You couldn’t just look up the uses of every word in the English language, you had to read the books and find the words, and then catalog what you discovered. 

Prior to this enormous undertaking, some had attempted to create dictionaries of a sort. But they were poorly done and not as helpful as what was needed. Usually they were done by one person or a small group. The product was small and nowhere near exhaustive. To do it right, the Delegates of the Oxford University Press hired Dr. Murray, a man who loved learning, as well as other formidable minds to write what everyone knew would be an overwhelming task.

The method they came up with would involve the whole country. They invited readers everywhere to submit words. Slips were printed and distributed all over the country that someone could fill out, submitting a word and the quotation and the book in which he found it. Although they initially received a lot of odd words and rarely used words, they stressed that they were looking for all words. Even mundane and common words had to go in their dictionary. Dr. Murray initially set up a set of pigeon-holed boxes to hold all the slips of paper. But the sheer volumes of words soon overwhelmed him, and he had to move his family and his team to the campus of Oxford and into a large warehouse. It was sort of the original Wikipedia!

Enter Dr. Minor. He was an extremely bright man. During the daytime, he was lucid and well-versed in literature and learning. It was only at nights that the paranoia and hallucinations consumed him. His eminently reasonable daytime persona led to great freedoms at the lunatic asylum. He had two rooms, one dedicated entirely to his books and art supplies. When he heard about the OED project, he felt he had finally found and outlet for his intellect. He read voraciously and submitted word after word. When his prolific inputs caught the eyes of the OED team, they began to send him requests to read certain book and find certain words. He delighted in being useful.

Obviously a dictionary that takes 70 years to complete, from the initial idea to the final published volume, will not be finished in author’s lifetime, Dr. Murray and his team finally got to a point, five years after they began in earnest, where they could publish the first volume, A — Ant. Dr. Murray felt confident predicting the entire thing would be done in 11 more years. It would actually take another 44. When “the entirety of the infuriating letter C (which the lexicographers found unusually filled with ambiguities and complexities, not least because of its frequent overlaps with the letters G, K, and S)” the university decided it was time to celebrate. It was to this party that Dr. Murray wished to invite his long-time correspondent, Dr. Minor. 

Apparently the story told at the beginning was mythological. It seems Dr. Murray was not surprised to find that Dr. Minor was incarcerated with mental health issues. They had, in fact, been corresponding for some time and Dr. Murray was well aware of his friend's condition. They had actually met several times, with Dr. Murray trying to offer any help he could to his friend. 

Eventually, the demons won and Dr. Minor became incapable of helping with the OED. His brother brought him back to America where he lived until he died. 

I found the book a very fascinating piece of little-known history. We so take for granted the ease with which we look up words and discover their meaning. Right now, the definition of any word is just a right-click away. Seeing the immensity of the endeavor has given me new appreciation for what is so easily dismissed. For a non-fiction book, it read like a novel. That’s the best kind of history!

No comments:

Post a Comment