Please Pass the Brain Bleach: A Review of “The Professor and the Madman”

Last year I read  The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester which is a book about a man who removes his own genitalia with a pocket knife. That’s mostly what I remember about it anyway.  I got to that chapter I just kept screaming, “No, No, No, No, NO!  No.  No, No, NO, NO, No.  I….No!  Dear God in heaven No! No. NO!”

There was also something about a dictionary in there?”

In all seriousness though, if you haven’t read the book it’s about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the strange relationship that formed between the man heading the project and a man in a mental institution who assisted the creation of the dictionary through correspondence.

If you’re not familiar with the Oxford English Dictionary…well you should be.  Because the Oxford English Dictionary is recognized the world over as the final authority on the complete meaning and etymology of English words.  How complete is it? Let’s put it this way: Look over at the dictionary on your shelf.  Now multiply by twenty.  That’s how long the Oxford English Dictionary is.

And this gargantuan compendium of English etymology was created over a period of seventy years, from 1858 when the idea was first hatched, until 1928 when the final volume of the dictionary was released.  It would be an epic achievement for any time, but in the era before computers such a thing should have been nearly impossible.

The Professor and the Madman is in part Simon Winchester’s love letter to the Oxford English Dictionary, but more importantly than that it is a fascinating character study of the eponymous professor and madman, and Winchester could scarcely have picked two more interesting men from any era of history.  The “Professor” of the title is James Murray, an amazing self-taught etymologist, and completely brilliant man.  The “mad man” is W. C. Minor, a man who suffered from persecutory delusions, and had been imprisoned for killing a man he believed to be a spy.  I’ll let you guess which one of them ends up cutting off his own genitalia with a pocket knife. No. No, NO, NO.

Argh.  Focus.

Bottom line: I recommend the book.  It’s a fantastic tribute to two amazing men and one incredible dictionary, and it has my stamp of approval.

Also, I hear there’s a movie in the works soon, so if you want to be able to say, “Well, the movie was okay, but I read the book first,” then you need to get on the ball.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go bang my head against the wall, and scream to myself for a while.  Maybe then I can stop thinking about pocket knives and -No, No, NO, NOOO….

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2 responses to “Please Pass the Brain Bleach: A Review of “The Professor and the Madman”

  1. My first response when reading the first line of this post, was “holy God! why would anyone want to read that??”

    But seeing as there’s a movie to come soon….

    (Also, after reading on I realized, that hey, maybe I should check it out. Because, you know…the dictionary rocks.)

    • I guess it helps if you know about the book ahead of time. But that is the part of the book that stuck in my mind the most, as you can imagine. It really is a great book though.

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