Book Five in the 13 in ’13 Reading Challenge: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

It’s here! It’s here!! It’s finally Friday!!! Thank goodness. I don’t think I could have lasted much longer!

I’m exaggerating just a tiny bit for the sake of amusing you, dear readers. I promise that I’m not actually still hungover tired from my wild night out lovely and responsible time with K. (My mom reads this blog from time to time. Hi Mom!)

You’ll be happy to know that I was actually quite civilized for the rest of the week. On Wednesday, Deb and I went to the symphony to see a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto 1. It was outstanding. On Thursday, I changed into pajama pants as soon as I got home from Corporate World. Actually, I should give myself a little more credit: I waited until the delivery guy had dropped off my sushi and then I changed into pajama pants. It was outstanding.

Speaking of outstanding, I’m thrilled to report that the 13 in ’13 Reading Challenge is continuing right on track, as I’ve finished my 5th book in the 5th month of the year. Today we’re talking about The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary written by Simon Winchester and recommended to me by the inimitable Bonnie from Paperkeeper. Let’s get to it!

Creating any type of lexicon is a massive undertaking; writing and editing the first ever, complete, unabridged reference document for the entire English language, by hand, is something else altogether. It is something extraordinary. Obviously, no one could do it alone, and many definitions were submitted by volunteers. As the definitions came in, the head of the committee noticed that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

Can you believe it?!? This is a true story, my friends. Just think, during your school years, in the wee hours when you’d already

Paper driving you crazy? It may not be entirely your fault ...

Paper driving you crazy? It may not be entirely your fault …

been awake for 17-plus consecutive hours and you needed to finish a paper and you were feeling like you were losing a bit of your mind … you were literally counting on a crazy person to help you get through it.

Obviously, I love this book to bits.

The story is just remarkable, and it’s told in such delicious, chewy language that sometimes all I could do was stop, and sigh, and read passages over again, and try to ignore how very jealous I was of Simon Winchester and his way with words. Here’s an example, from the very first chapter:

In Victorian London, even in a place as louche and notoriously crime-ridden as Lambeth Marsh, the sound of gunshots was a rare event indeed. The marsh was a sinister place, a jumble of slums and sin that crouched, dark and ogrelike, on the bank of the Thames just across from Westminster; few respectable Londoners would ever admit to venturing there. It was a robustly violent part of town as well …  Fagin, Bill Sikes, and Oliver Twist would have all seemed quite at home in Victorian Lambeth: This was Dickensian London writ large. But it was not a place for men with guns.

See? Delicious.

And, for me, fascinating. I just couldn’t get over the fact that this all actually happened. I talk a lot and I write even more; and I take the dictionary completely for granted. Did you know that the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary took, all told, over seventy years to complete?!? I didn’t!!

professor_web-300x440It’s not a long book, but I took my time with this one; partially because I got distracted by Ender but mainly because I wanted to soak up the rhythms of Winchester’s language. That being said; I can definitely understand how this book might not be for everyone: he talks a lot. In detail. A lot of detail. If you like your mystery novels taut and sparsely written, you may have a tough time getting through this one.

But if you’re a word nerd like me, then for heaven’s sake go pick up a copy!

Thank you for the wonderful recommendation Bonnie, and have a wonderful weekend everyone! It’s a long weekend here in Canada, so I’ll be taking Monday off*, and we’ll have a Tuesday edition of My Life as a Movie, instead.

* You know I’ll probably stop by to say hi anyway.

love amb

23 thoughts on “Book Five in the 13 in ’13 Reading Challenge: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

    • Hey thanks Jenn! I like posting these reviews because they give me an excuse to talk about something I enjoy – if I can persuade other people to pick up a copy of the book while I’m at it, so much the better!

      PS I just LOVED the photos you posted today! 🙂

  1. Good to hear you enjoyed it so much, as that’ll help push me through. I started reading it Tues night, but set it aside after page 8 for Rest in Pizza (really, that’s what it’s called) which moves along more effortlessly. Assuming Professor grabs you at some point, but I’m guessing it will take more effort on my part to enjoy the richly written prose. (no effort required for Rest in Pizza and the like, but the reward is also less) Need to finish my pizza crime reading, then will dive back in. The premise is riveting and it’s been written up and applauded in so many places that I know it’s a must-read. Enjoyed your review–well-written per usual. (that’s my review of your review 😉 )

    I’m mucho impressed with your week of culture. Glad you had a sushi-and-pj pants night. Nice balance for all the preceding action. And a long weekend? Can’t go wrong with that! Yay Friday 🙂

    • Rest in Pizza … bahahahahaha I love it!!! Motts? Or someone else? Author’s name please 🙂

      Thanks for the review of my review – loved that, too. I so appreciate you coming to visit as always! Makes a lovely start to my Friday. Can’t go wrong with that indeed. I hope you have a wonderful one as well!!

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    • Glad to see you here Megan – word nerds unite! 🙂

      I hope you’ll stick around for the rest of the Reading Challenge – and please do let me know what you think of “The Professor” once you’ve read it!

  3. Amb…I am so super late to this party…it’s been a little nuts around here the last few days, but I just HAD to circle back and tell you how much fun it was to read your review and know that you love the book too! Fellow word nerds unite! In fact, while out to dinner earlier this evening..I came across this in the opinion section of our local paper and you know exactly who I thought of. You!

    http://www.sacbee.com/2013/05/22/5438343/viewpoints-what-our-words-tell.html

    So so glad you liked this book!
    oxox
    Bon

    • Bon, my love, you know you have a standing invitation to every one of my parties in the history of ever … which means you’re never late!

      So happy to see you! I was thinking about you today – I owe you an email! For now, can I just tell you how much I LOVE that article you sent? Fascinating! You’ve given me lots to think about … changes are good you’ll see a post on this topic down the road, so thanks in advance for the inspiration! xo.

  4. not sure where the book club meeting for Prof and Madman is held, but thought I’d check here. Thinking you’ll find me, amb 😉

    Finished last night and was surprised at how quickly I zipped through once I picked it up a second time. It was a good read, though I don’t think I was as enamored by the language as you were. It was so well written, I think, that I didn’t notice how cleverly written it really was. (hope that makes sense) I especially liked that the author kept the reader at a bit of a distance from his readers. I wasn’t overly affected by the sadness and tragedy that repeatedly surfaced–if I had really cared about the characters, I might have cried my way through. (And I hate books that make me sad.) Instead it seemed more like a fascinating textbook. Stuff happened–some good, some bad, but it happened and now we have a dictionary so there you have it. I liked very much and my mother-in-law was over and read a few pages and ran off to buy herself a copy. How’s that for a recommend!

    I’d read positive reviews, but it took your posts and the commenters’ comments to prompt me to hunt it down. Glad I did 🙂

    • Liz!! Here’s the book club meeting! You found it, you found it. Oh, this comment made me so happy on so many levels, I can’t even tell you! Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by and share your thoughts on the book – I so appreciate it. Really, it’s awesome readers like yourself that have made this into the fun and engaging space that it is. 🙂 But back to the book …

      I was nodding along as I was reading your comment – I really like the way you described the author’s removal from his subjects. I definitely felt that “distance”, too. You’re absolutely right, the character of William Minor in particular was a tragic one, and yet I wasn’t overly concerned about the fact that he had killed someone and basically come unglued after that. I was much more interested in how events took place than why characters did what they did, which was a different experience for me. And I enjoyed it!

      That’s great to hear that you MIL bought herself a copy too! I hope she enjoys it as well 🙂

      So glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for reading along with me. This reading challenge is so much more fun with you here!

      • yes, book club is fun this way 🙂 Let’s do it again. I am making oodles of banana treats for a project I posted on facebook, so will be able to bring those over soon. What’s a book club without treats and what says “crazy insane guy” better than bananas?

  5. Pingback: Book Six in the 13 in ’13 Reading Challenge: Austenland | words become superfluous

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