Thursday, April 27, 2006

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!

Now reading:
Marilynne Robinson Gilead

On deck:
Umberto Eco The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana


Dorothy W. said...

Oooh -- I like the movie idea! I'd go!

Stefanie said...

My husband read the book and liked it too. I haven't read it yet which is really bad because my husband bought the book for me. Oops!

I have a dream of someday owning the OED.

Like the movie idea :)

M. Barresi said...

I think the movie could be more literate than The Da Vinci Code. Which, though I haven't read the book and never will, I'll probably go see. I mean, it has Audrey Tautou in it.

Stefanie - at least you have someone buying you books, feeding your addiction. That can't be bad.

piksea said...

This book has been on the fringes of my TBR pile for years. I wind up forgetting about it and then I get a reminder like this. I promise not to wait for the movie to read this book!

M. Barresi said...

Piksea - I think we'd all have to put the movie together if it was ever going to be made. But here's to dreaming.