Book Summary: The Professor and the Madman

Yay, my first book summary! Let’s see if all of those years of AP English stuck.

I don’t suggest or write book summaries lightly; I don’t do it because it’s an easy post or because I like to hear myself gob on. If I truly feel like taking the time and energy that a really good book summary takes, mind you without spoiling too much of it (although, to be frank, I don’t care much for those that are easily offended by so-called spoilers), then I do it because I genuinely feel that others should read this book.

This round’s example is on a book by Simon Winchester, called The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The title is exhausting by modern standards, but relatively lightweight compared to some of the others mentioned in this book.

I originally picked this book up during the much, much latter half of my second year of Honours English in high school. I had just been accepted into the AP English programme, and my Honours English teacher—who, I’m not shy to admit, doted on me for enjoying Shakespeare so much that year—suggested this to me. She said that it was certainly a book for people who liked words, and that none of her students had picked it up since it was first placed on the bookshelf in her classroom. Considering that there was a joke among my English teachers regarding my reading habits (they called me the book thief, and little did they know, I did actually steal their books), Mrs S. strongly encouraged me to read it.

However, at the time, I was an atrociously slow reader, much to my frustration, and I could not ready 242 pages in two weeks. The school year ended and I had to return the book.

Excellent, now that I’ve given you a snippet of my life story, here is the actual summary:

Now, five years later, I bought the book secondhand online. The idea of it stuck with me for quite some time, and I finally decided to buy it, along with a great linguistics text book that I’m still working through. Firstly, I’d like to mention that even among book thieves, there is a huge factor that we take into consideration before we steal a book. Yes, it’s a wonderful piece and we want it, but does it look pretty?

Yes, this book is quite pretty, even if modestly so. (If that makes sense.) I think that it’s beautiful! Following a characteristic of the book that Winchester seems to delight in doing, instead of providing pictures, I will explain it what it looks like to you: The book jacket’s front depicts a man, the protagonist labelled as the madman, with an overlaying illustration of an original OED as a footer, in a gentle sepia. On the inside of the front and page folds, where the pages meet the hardback cover, there are several minuscule dictionary entries, mostly pertaining to the word murder and related words, i.e. murderer, murderously, &c.

The book is not daunting in size, although it must have been quite the commitment to write, given the fact that it stretches over a lifetime, following the lives of many important figures in English literature. The protagonists that it follows, however, are named Dr William C. Minor (the madman) and James Murray (the professor). The story opens up with an account of murder in Victorian London, the culprit of which is an obviously diluted Minor, who had come to England from New England on the suggestion of the US military that it might help hi reclaim a grip on life.

Immediately, the book dives into the sheer intelligence of these men, and even though their beginnings are quite unlike—and simultaneously similar—the reader is shown how their lives gradually weave together. Murray’s life story is rather uplifting; an extremely intelligent Scott from the lower class, who ends up managing one of the most ambitious tasks in all of literature, in creating the very first, fully functional and coherent dictionary for the English language.

Apparently, at the time, English was already replacing French as the language of diplomacy, which was something general that I learnt. I also learnt that even though there had been several types of ‘reference books’ for the English language, none of them were actually all that useful (they would be full of rare or archaic words for playwrights to use, instead of everyday words for everyone to use), and of the few proto-dictionaries, they were 1) written more like poetry to loosely describe a noun, an adverb, or what have you, and 2) they were frequently written by a single person who could put their personal touches on words, and nobody would fact check them.

As I said, reading Murray’s story is inspirational, because he went from being a brilliant bloke with no opportunities to the head of the OED project, but by intelligence, will, and a little bit of charisma. Also, he joined the Philological Society, who began the whole project. Surely that made way for his success, but still… Most people today would pout and say that he got lucky.

Minor’s story, on the other hand, not only forces sympathy from the reader while providing extremely informative historical accounts of things, but makes the reader want to befriend this sad man. (Unless you’re Irish, which will only make sense if you read the book.) Minor, unlike Murray, came from a prominent New English family, so money and opportunity abound. Not to mention, his folks were staunch missionaries, so even more money and opportunity abound.

I’m a history buff far and wide, and I absolutely love getting a peek inside of these peoples’ lives because one learns so much. From Minor’s account alone, I learnt more interesting details about the American Civil War than I did in history class (American schools are notoriously lazy when it comes to teaching history, social studies, and geography). I also learnt that Ceylon was the Imperial name for Sri Lanka. I work in a store with Ceylon teas and Ceylon cinnamons, and I never knew that! I was told, “It’s in India”. It’s not, my friend, it’s its own country.

The book also makes the reader longing for the Victorian and Edwardian eras—and many, many bookworms that I know do this regularly, myself included. To look at what a high level of importance and influence that the humanities had in this time period is nearly envy-inducing. Our world is now so small, languages surrendered to English, that if it doesn’t have a touchscreen or internet compatibility, it’s not smart. I beg to differ, and these brilliant people beg to differ.

Not to mention, while there may be a few brainstormers in Silicon Valley that are devising ways to make small robots wipe our bums for us after we use the restroom (because they’ve surely never heard of bidets, those are too old school), the amount of people that it took to make the OED is actually nearly unaccountable. Volunteers from all over the world, in Anglophonic and non-Anglophonic countries alike, would have books sent to them from Oxford, meticulously write down any words assigned to them or that fascinated them, and then write down not only the use, a loose definition, and quotations in which the word could be used, but also the first time in history that it was used, and often when, where, and by whom. That’s so much love! Thousands of people did this, sending in dozens, hundreds, or thousands of entries to the crew at Oxford, which would then look all of them over in agonising detail before adding them to the press. Queen Victoria even got involved at one point (mostly by knighting Murray and granting the OED honours and other queenly stuff), and something that I really admired about the OED and its contributors was that nothing stopped them. Progress on the dictionary had to be halted a couple of times, like whenever the head of the project or an important contributor would die, or whenever the Philological Society had to convince the Oxford University to become their patron, and then publisher. Despite arrests, though, the work went on. It even bulldozed through World War I and slowing economics (and finally, the Great Depression), volume after volume being sold to the public, even if on panicked release dates that had been pushed back years in advance.

The dictionary took a little under a century to make, but a little over two weeks to read about. (I’ve become a faster reader, ha ha!) Reading about it is like watching a documentary on how books are made: It sounds interesting enough, and at first it’s a little slow and you don’t know quite what you’re looking at, but as things pick up, you become enthralled, and you nearly cry from the beauty of it at the end.

As Mrs S. said, if you like words, do yourself a favour and read this book.



If you’ve made it this far, thank you tremendously. I like to make reeeally long posts, but I like to write, so… yeah… Anyway, this was the first summary that I’ve done, and I’m not sure if I’m going to continue with these. They’re certainly fun and I’ve always wanted a book club, but it’s difficult when nobody else had read the book. Let me know what you think.~

My preowned copy of this wonderful piece + pumpkin spice coffee = a good morning.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s