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This is an extremely interesting story, so much so that you can see why anyone who heard about it would feel compelled to share it.  But it's pretty slender and just barely worthy of a book length treatment.  It seems like it would work better as a long magazine article or even as a novel and it will make a terrific movie.

In the latter portion of the 19th century, when James A. H. Murray faced the monumental task of compiling the initial version of the Oxford English Dictionary, he sent out a call for contributors.  One of the most reliable and thorough volunteers proved to be Dr. William Chester Minor.  But Minor resisted entreaties to visit the operations of the OED and to partake in the celebrations as volumes were completed.  The reason for his reticence turned out to be his incarceration in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

Minor, an American, was profoundly disturbed and a murderer to boot.  After some disquieting years of service in a medical unit during the Civil War, he fixed upon an obsession that Irishmen wanted to kill him.  His psychoses finally led him to gun down a complete stranger on a British street and he was institutionalized.   He eventually spent about 50 of his over 80 years in some form of state care, where he was continually plagued by delusions that he was being spied upon and his food poisoned, and at one point he mutilated himself in a fashion which will have male readers cringing in horror.  Meanwhile, his incarceration and his educational attainment made him uniquely well suited to contribute to the mammoth undertaking that was the OED.

Winchester does a creditable job of showing how two very different men were united by their love of language and learning.  But, there are pretty obvious dramatic limitations to a true life story that involves one subject who's institutionalized and another who's writing a dictionary.  Like I said, it's a pretty slim tale, but it is fascinating.


Grade: (B+)


Simon Winchester Links:

    -REVIEW: of THE MEANING OF EVERYTHING: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary By Simon Winchester (William F. Buckley Jr, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT: the Dead of Night in Lambeth Marsh (Book Browse)
    -ESSAY : Original synonym  (SIMON WINCHESTER, 4 June 2001, The Age)
    -ESSAY : Word Imperfect :  Roget's Thesaurus has long been considered one of the great lexicographical achievements in the history of the  English language, a reference work of astonishing ubiquity and far-reaching influence. But now the author  of The Professor and the Madman-the best-selling tale of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary-questions the legacy of the definitive list of synonyms that the brilliant Peter Mark Roget compiled 150 years ago. Is the name Roget becoming a synonym for intellectually second-rate?  (Simon Winchester, The Atlantic)
    -Book Browse: Simon Winchester  Book Summary, Reviews   Author Biography
    -Complete Review (links to reviews)
    -REVIEW : of The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester (John Banville, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: (Charles Taylor, Salon)
    -REVIEW: (Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW: (David Pitt, Under the Covers)
    -REVIEW: (Tjames Madison, Cool Net)
    -REVIEW : of The Map that Changed the World: the Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science by Simon Winchester (Sara Wheeler, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of The River at the Centre of the World by Simon Winchester (Trevor Fishlock, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Map That Changed the World (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Map That Changed the World (Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)