Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is a charming and fascinating sidebar to one of the great works of scholarship in history. The Oxford English Dictionary took over 70 years to produce its first edition, and remains the definitive text on the historical development of the English language. It could not have been published without the unpaid efforts of over 800 dedicated volunteers - including Dr. William Minor, an American Army surgeon, incarcerated for almost 40 years in an English insane asylum for murdering a London brewery worker during an attack of a delusional paranoia that afflicted him his entire life.
The Professor and the Madman focuses on Minor's contribution to the work of Sir James Murray, the Scots genius who was the OED's first and greatest editor. Minor, when he wasn't being delusional, was a brilliant, assiduous reader, devoted to the English language and delighted to be part of the enormous project.
Winchester's book is a very quick read, and a delightful one. There are better books on Murray and the OED; but The Professor and the Madman gives a unique human insight into the enterprise, and the love of a language that inspired two such disparate individuals.
Anyone who loves to read and write will rightfully revere the OED and what it represents; also the enormous labors that went into its compilation. The Professor and the Madman is but a footnote to the history of that effort; but it is a lovely little footnote.