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Extended Audio Sample The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester Click for printable size audiobook cover
3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 3.00 (34,655 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: Simon Winchester Narrator: Simon Winchester Publisher: HarperCollins Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date:
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One of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters, the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, and drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story.

Professor James Murray was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors to the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, hand-written quotations from his home. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray’s offer was regularly, mysteriously, refused.

Finally, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray would finally learn the truth about Minor: that, in addition to being a masterly wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane—and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness and genius and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history. Written with riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester delivers a fascinating glimpse into one man’s tortured mind and his contribution to another man’s magnificent dictionary.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “High marks to this entertaining study of a fascinating piece of literary history.”

    Huffington Post

  • The Professor and the Madman interweaves the sagas of Murray, Minor, and the OED with all the fascination of a well-crafted mystery, compelling the reader to find out how two such remarkable men came to cooperate on such a ludicrously ambitious project.”

    Barnes & Noble, editorial review

  • “With his cheeky way with a tale …Winchester celebrates a gloomy life brightened by devotion to a quietly noble, nearly anonymous task.”

    Publishers Weekly

  • “ First-rate writing: well-crafted, incisive, abundantly playful.”

    Kirkus Reviews

  • A New York Times Bestseller
  • A 1998 New York Times Notable Book for Nonfiction
  • A 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

Listener Opinions

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by Annie | 1/20/2014

    " Fascinating and informative. A melding of history and characters. I love when a nonfiction book shows something well-known from a different point of view, or at least, mixes it with other information from the current day that one would normally never associate with the subject. Also, this is an acute view of mental illness and how it was viewed in history (specifically in Victorian England). A big question is, would the Oxford English Dictionary have been less magnificent if one of its main patrons was treated differently? "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by Chrissy | 1/4/2014

    " Much more tragic a story than I'd ever expected, this book delivers on its tripartite promise of murder, insanity, and dictionary-making. It details the history of the timelessly impressive accomplishment that is the Oxford English Dictionary, focusing on one of its most prolific volunteer contributors-- who also happened to be a life-long patient at an institute for the criminally insane. What evolves from this exploration of a life's work is a completely haunting, though at times touching, tale of the human mind in all its capacities. Simon Winchester moves from Ceylonian (now Sri Lankan) beaches to the American Civil war, from Victorian London slums to the castles of Oxford University, and always back to mental institutes, skillfully weaving a narrative of a promising life gone wrong and the good that nevertheless came out of it. What I found most interesting (I'm a psychological researcher, I can't help it) were the moral questions that Winchester poses, but does not claim to know a "right answer" to, regarding the recent institutionalization of psychopharmaceuticals in the treatment of mental disorder. Is it right, he asks, to erode away with medication the unusual neurological landscapes that often contribute to great inventions, discoveries, or accomplishments, because they can also lead to harm or danger? Can we weigh the value of unique mental perspectives against the threat of volatility? Is a human life worth a creation as influential and magnificent as the Oxford English Dictionary, and should we even be the ones deciding? I learned a lot from this book, least of which is a host of new words to add to my vocabulary; it speaks much more strongly to the human condition than to lexicography, but it offers a truly fascinating, absolutely sad, history of both. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by Deb | 12/30/2013

    " What a totally engrossing and interesting book! Simon Winchester's voice as the narrator is so compelling and almost spell-binding that it is hard to put this book down. Who would have thought that it would take seventy years to put together the Oxford English Dictionary and that there were so many stories behind it's writing? The book was just long enough to keep it really interesting. I am certainly interested in reading other books by Winchester. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 by Katherine | 11/30/2013

    " This book could have been a fascinating magazine article, but was bloated and too excited about uninteresting tangents (in the purplest of prose) at its full length. "

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