Book: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

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The Professor and the Madman…is the linguistic detective story of the decade…. Winchester does a superb job of historical research that should entice readers even more interested in deeds than words.”

—William Safire, New York Times Magazine

“Elegant and scrupulous.”

New York Times Book Review

“I found The Professor and the Madman both enthralling and moving, in its brilliant reconstruction of a most improbable event: the major contributions made to the great Oxford English Dictionary by a deeply delusional, incarcerated ‘madman,’ and the development of a true friendship between him and the editor of the OED. One sees here the redemptive potential of work and love in even the most deeply, ‘hopelessly,’ psychotic.”

—Oliver Sacks, M.D.

“Remarkably readable, this chronicle of lexicography roams from the great dictionary itself to hidden nooks in the human psyche that sometimes house the motives for murder, the sources for sanity, and the blueprint for creativity.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“An extraordinary tale, and Simon Winchester could not have told it better…. [He] has written a splendid book.”

The Economist

“Madness, violence, arcane obsessions, weird learning, ghastly comedy, all set out in an atmosphere of po-faced, high neo-Gothic. The geographical span is wide, from Dickensian London to Florida’s Pensacola Bay, from the beaches at Trincomalee to the Civil War battlefields of the United States…. It is a wonderful story.”

Literary Review

“This is almost my favorite kind of book: the work of social and intellectual history which through the oblique treatment of major developments manages to throw unusual light on humankind and its doings…. Simon Winchester’s effortlessly clear, spare prose is the perfect vehicle for the tale…absolutely riveting.”

The Times (London)

“It’s a story for readers who know the joy of words and can appreciate side trips through the history of dictionaries and marvel at the idea that when Shakespeare wrote, there we no dictionaries to consult…. Winchester, a British journalist who’s written 12 other books, combines a reporter’s eye for detail with a historian’s sense of scale. His writing is droll and eloquent.”

USA Today

“Winchester’s history of the OED is brisk and entertaining.”

Washington Post Book World

“Winchester has written a powerful account of the shifting foundations on which meaning is built, and the impoverishment of a language that could not describe or give peace to one of its makers.”

New York Post

“Mr. Winchester deftly weaves…a narrative full of suspense, pathos and humor…. In this elegant book the writer has created a vivid parable, in the spirit of Nabokov and Borges. There is much truth to be drawn from it, about Victorian pride, the relation between language and the world, and the fine line between sanity and madness.”

Wall Street Journal

“A fascinating, spicy, learned tale.”

New York Times

“Simon Winchester, in his splendid, oddball slice of history The Professor and the Madman, has come up with an irresistible hook…[an] utterly fascinating account of how a combination of scholarship and nationalism begat what would become the Oxford English Dictionary…. If the initial sections of [Winchester’s] 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…. The strange richness of it all is enhanced by the flawless clarity of Winchester’s prose. 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.”


“One of the great strengths of this book is historical mise-en-scène, particularly for nineteenth-century America and England…[a] marvelous work of historical and philological imagination.”

National Review

“[Winchester] has the journalistic virtues, including a talent for following things up and delving into unexpected corners.”

New York Review of Books

“A fascinating tale of madness, the evolution of dictionaries, Victorian England, eccentric autodidacts, and the likeness of two men who appear to be opposites. [It] is a compelling slice of social and intellectual history as well. Out of a near-forgotten fragment of history, Simon Winchester has created an evocative chronicle of the healing powers of affection upon the turmoil of a troubled mind.”

Boston Globe

“Singular, astonishing, and well-told from start to finish.”

A Common Reader

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