As far as non-fiction goes, The Professor and the Madman was quick and easy, and thus, a highly accessible read. I haven't read anything else by Winchester, but it's easy to see why he's become such a prominent figure in the non-fiction genre. The Professor... is the story about the prodigious task of creating the Oxford English Dictionary. There were dictionaries before the OED, but none encompassed every word in the English language. Prior to the OED, dictionaries were specifically written for parts of speech. Not the OED. Even this day in age I can't imagine trying to track down a quotation of every word, citing that definition, finding the origin of the word and the first time the word was used. It's unfathomable. Yet, Doctor James Murray, a member of the British Philogical Society undertakes the assignment with great energy. He will work on the project for forty years, the rest of his life, and still fail to see it to completion.
And that's only half the story. The other protagonist is an American Army surgeon. Well, actually, he's more famous because he was a murderer. In the 1870s, the American doctor, W.C. Minor, is living an unknowingly tortured life in England when he murders a man. Deemed insane, Minor spends the next forty years or so, in a hospital (a loose term here) where he corresponds with Murray and the rest of the OED team. For twenty odd years, Minor sends in thousands of words to Murray from his two room cell just outside of London.
It's an extraordinary story that I kept thinking would make a great movie. At least if you're a geek like me, you'd enjoy a movie about the making of dictionary, but I feel most sane people would opt for another way to spend two hours of their life. Not me. Murder, books, intrigue, words, long white beards...OSCAR!
Marilynne Robinson Gilead
Umberto Eco The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana