Joanne played this audiobook for me on our last long drive; something was vexing me and this true, compelling yarn proved to be the perfect tonic.
I wouldn’t normally warn about spoilers for a book first published in 1998, but I learned today that this book was made into a movie starring Mel Gibson and Brad Pitt which premiered this year (2019) in limited release. If you’re worried about it, there are some slight spoilers below; you can come back and read this after you’ve seen the movie or read the book.
The story starts dramatically with a murder, an unprecedentedly brutal homicide by the standards of London in the 1870s. Dr. William C. Minor, an American whose mental health had eroded since his service in the Civil War, shot George Merrett in the throat and then waited calmly for the police. It had been a terrible mistake he confessed; he was attempting to chase away a man who had broken into his room to torment him, a figment of his dementia. He was soon committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, creating the circumstances where he would become one of the most prolific contributors to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.
The book proceeds, at least at first, as a bibiography, by which we understand a biography focused on two subjects. (Editors of the OED please note: this may be the first recorded use of this word as I have just now made it up. This is probably moot however as it doesn’t really seem to be a very good word after all; it sounds like a stutter and is too easily mistaken for ”bibliography.”) The second subject, the titular professor, is Dr. James Murray, who rose from humble beginnings to become the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary throughout the lion’s share of its creation.
Their stories and the interplay between the two men is enthralling, but ”The Professor and the Madman” is far more than a shared biography of two men. The author turns lovely phrases and paints vivid scenes. There is a fascinating account of the debate about whether the word ”protagonist” could ever be used in the plural. The story of the creation of the OED becomes a history of all English lexicography and is far more compelling than it has the right to be.
Like most biographies, the ending is bittersweet. Dr. Minor’s end is pitiful as his facilities continued to desert him. The end of Dr. Murray’s life is a study in unfinished business. He toiled on the OED until his passing just shy of his 80th birthday and did not live to see its completion. But at least there is the coda of the OED itself; completed and now well on its way to a third edition, it can stand as a monument to both of these men’s lives.
Thus, I strongly recommend the book. I can’t speak for the movie, but we plan to check it out at our earliest convenience.
Winchester, S., The Professor and the Madman, Harper Collins, 1998.