When we're children, the easiest way for writers and teachers and parents to hook us with a story is to begin with the words "Imagine a time when there was no ..." Simon Winchester, in his splendid, oddball slice of history "The Professor and the Madman," has come up with an irresistible hook. Imagine a time, Winchester asks us, when there were no dictionaries. That's such an unthinkable prospect to most readers (and writers) that Winchester needn't do any more to keep our interest. But he does. Winchester, a Salon contributor, uses this utterly fascinating account of how a combination of scholarship and nationalism begat what would become the "Oxford English Dictionary" (a project that would eventually take 70 years and 12 volumes to complete) to tell the story of the odd friendship the project sparked.
The project began in earnest in 1878 under the editorship of Professor James Murray, a philologist and school teacher. Handbills were distributed through bookstores and libraries asking for volunteer readers to begin assembling word lists and quotations that illustrated the meanings of those words. One of the most productive of the volunteers was Dr. William Charles Minor, an American Army surgeon who had served in the Civil War. Gratified, Murray repeatedly invited Minor to visit him, invitations Minor always turned down. Murray finally discovered why: Minor had been an inmate at the Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane since 1871, when, in a deluded state, he had killed a man.
Winchester wisely doesn't try to explain Minor's madness, though he suggests that it may have had something to do with his wartime experiences (particularly one episode in which he was made to brand an Irish deserter). Winchester doesn't need to point up the irony that at Broadmoor, Minor found a more humane environment than he did in the Army. His cell consisted of two rooms, one large enough to house the books he used to pass what he probably knew would be a life sentence. Minor emerges as a learned, essentially decent man (even the widow of the man he killed was a regular visitor for a time), sadly caught in the grip of obsessive delusions.
If the initial sections of his tale have the appeal of a gaslight Victorian thriller, Winchester doesn't leave it at that. He's a superb historian because he's a superb storyteller. Nothing he includes here -- whether it's an examination of the section of London where Minor committed his crime, the genealogy of the two protagonists (usually the dullest part of any history or biography) or a brief history of the very notion of dictionaries -- feels like it's impeding his story. The strange richness of it all is enhanced by the flawless clarity of Winchester's prose. His Victorian style, far from being a pastiche or postmodernist game-playing, is his natural mode of expression. In this passage, he imagines Shakespeare composing "Twelfth Night" without aid of a dictionary: "Now what, exactly, did William Shakespeare know about elephants? Moreover, what did he know of Elephants as hotels? The name was one that was given to a number of lodging houses in various cities dotted around Europe ... But however many there were -- just why was this the case? Why name an inn after such a beast? And what was such a beast anyway? All of these are questions that, one would think, a writer should at least have been able to answer."
Minor's diligence as a contributor resulted in his being responsible for something like 10,000 words in the final OED. He hoped that focusing on this task would deliver him from his psychosis, but Minor was also following his curiosities. Winchester, investigating an odd bit of background trivia about the making of one of the world's great books, has the courage of his own curiosity. The elegant curio he has created is as enthralling as a good story can be and as informative as any history aspires to be.