The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the MadmanMy British literature students are (I hope they are, at any rate) reading Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary as part of their summer reading assignment.  If they enjoy it half as much as I did, I will consider it a great success.  The story is enthralling.  Winchester examines the relationship between Dr. W. C. Minor, an American Civil War veteran who was committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum after murdering a man in the street, and James Murray, for many years the chief editor of the OED.

When Murray took the helm at the OED, he solicited help from volunteers who might we willing to look up what he called “catchwords” in their reading and copy quotations.  The OED wanted to include quotations to illustrate each word’s use and also to trace the words back to their earliest uses.  Considering the seeming disorganization of the affair (to modern eyes) and the unclear instructions volunteers were given, you, like me, will probably marvel that the volunteers were ever any use at all.

Winchester does not flinch from honesty with regard to Dr. Minor’s crime, but he also manages to portray him in a sympathetic light, and I found myself feeling he had, in some measure, been redeemed even if his mind was never to give him any peace.

I highly recommend this book to students of the English language, word lovers (this book is essential for word lovers — those children who used to haul out the dictionary at home and just look up words), history buffs, and anyone who just loves a good yarn.

For my next book, I will return to the Historical Fiction Challenge and read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.  If you have followed my progress with Emma in the sidebar under DailyLit, you may notice I will be finishing that book in less than a week’s time.  I haven’t decided which DailyLit selection I’ll read next.

Times Book Reviews

New York Times book reviews filled my RSS reader this morning.  So I can close some tabs in my browser, I will tell you about the books that caught my eye.

How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz is an autobiographical account of the children’s author’s arrival in Turkistan as a refugee from Warsaw in 1939.  His father goes to the market, but comes back home with a map instead of food for the family.  As a child who loved globes and maps (still do), I can relate to the protagonist’s discovery of the world through maps.  [Read the review.]

As the reviewer notes, biographies of Robert Frost are certainly common enough, but Brian Hall’s Fall of Frost is a novelized biography of the poet.  How does it work?  In the eyes of the reviewer, not so well.

Richard Bausch’s account of a murder committed by a soldier in WWII, Peace examines “how to preserve justice and personal integrity amid war’s insanity.”  The novel begins with a soldier’s murder of a German woman.  According to the reviewer:

Great writing about war — by Primo Levi, Erich Maria Remarque, Wilfred Owen — asks the same questions. What would you do? How can you bear witness? How can you preserve dignity and humanity in an inhuman struggle? These are the most (perhaps the only) important questions in conflict, and they always have been, whether the battle is fought in Amiens, Anzio or Abu Ghraib.

I learned that the OED has no plans to publish another print edition of the dictionary.  Doesn’t surprise me.  None of my students even think of turning to a dictionary on the bookshelf in order to complete their vocabulary assignments for my class.  When I point them toward one of these archaic devices after they have complained about finding the etymology for one of their vocabulary words, the response is usually something like, “Oh yeah, those things still exist.”  Perhaps the OED online wouldn’t be such a bad thing?  Then again, never having owned any print version of an OED dictionary, maybe I don’t have the same attachment to a print OED that the article’s author has.  Well, change is always hard, isn’t it?

Louise Erdrich has a new novel.  The Plague of Doves is the story of a public lynching of several Native Americans that haunts a small North Dakota town decades after it took place.  The novel’s multiple narrators attempt to unravel the story of who really committed the crime for which the Native Americans were lynched, but, as the reviewer notes, the real story is the complicated web of relationships among the town’s residents.  The genealogist in me can’t resist a book with that kind of description.

Is anyone else kind of annoyed by James Frey’s posts at the Amazon blog?  I mean, today it was a link to a review of his own book in Time, which bothered for some reason I can’t put my finger on.

I think I’ll be finishing The Book of Air and Shadows today, so peek in later for the review.  It won’t be pretty.