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on 8 October 2004
This book recounts a tale so improbable that as fiction it would have been hard to believe. Two Victorian lives become entwined. On the one hand, a great scholar who has bettered himself through learning, a man of towering reputation and influence; on the other, a millionaire madman whose delusional grip on reality has failed him and left him isolated in a lunatic asylum, a continent away from his family, with only his books for company.
Somehow their paths collide, and for years they work at a distance to create together the greatest reference book in the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Eventually they meet, and their rapport blossoms into true friendship. A strange story unfolds, of gothic madness, violence, improbable love and eventual disintegration.
At times uplifting, at others rather muted, this book can at times be unevenly paced; but overall it is a very rewarding read.
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on 17 February 2016
This is a fascinating tale beautiful told. Simon Winchester manages to pull you into the tale within the first few pages which is fascinating given that in theory it should be rather a dry story.
For anyone interested in the English language, the etymology of words, Victorian England, mental health or simply bizarre tales of the weird and the wonderful, this is for you.
It also makes for the perfect present, it's short enough not to be intimidating yet long enough to do the story justice.
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on 12 October 2017
This is a brilliant book,beautifully written, full of information but an easy read. When you finish it (it's not long), you could well say "well I never"
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on 8 November 2017
just as described
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on 18 May 2013
A wonderful book for anyone who loves words and has an interest in 'mystery' stories. It is incredible how bad events can contrive to produce something wonderful.
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VINE VOICEon 22 January 2008
The subject of the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary might seem to some as interesting as plowing through the subject text itself. Some might be more intrigued, the bibliophile, amateur lexicographer or philologist taking interest in the heritage of one of the greatest works in the English language. But those who are interested in biography or narrative history may discern a more exciting prospect. This is the story of two men, both central and devoted to the OED, and sharing as many similarities as they shared stark differences.

Some reviewers have commented that the story set out in this book would be dismissed as fantasy if it masqueraded as fiction. That it is a true story makes it quite remarkable. This is a tale from Victorian England in a world of European competition, supreme British confidence and `great' men. Just as the Victorians transformed and tamed their physical surroundings with majestic bridges, overbearing edifices and engineering feats they sought to do the same in the realm of learning. The Oxford English Dictionary was one of the high points of this academic adventure, deserving of greater recognition and understanding.

Winchester's book is an entertaining narrative of the dictionary's difficult gestation, birth and development. It is largely told through two protagonists (having pondered within the debate between the OED and Fowler's English Grammar on whether it was even possible to have plural protagonists) - the OED's long serving and dedicated editor, James Murray, and one of his keenest volunteers, William Minor.

And it is in Minor's story that the book finds its central intrigue. The surgeon of Crowthorne was indeed a surgeon, graduating from Yale and serving as a doctor in the US army of the civil war. And he was a resident of the Berkshire village of Crowthorne. But rather than occupying a manorial pile or a quaint, donnish cottage W. C. Minor was committed to Broadmoor, the secure hospital, or asylum, for the criminally insane.

Winchester develops the story well, plunging into the pasts of the two men to discern both their intellectual powers and how they found themselves in very different, yet at times strangely similar, circumstances. This story is intriguing, a tale of genius, dedication, madness and monomania. But for me the real joy was the remaining central character, the dictionary itself. It is in the love of the words, of the precise, magisterial definitions and the history of dictionaries that Winchester's passion shines. He writes with a passionate verve that sees the enthusiasm leap from the page.

The pre-Oxford English Dictionary world of Samuel Johnson's dictionary, and a world of "anachronistic polysyllabic sesquipedalian", inkhorn terms designed to impress others is a ridiculous treat. The clergyman quoted writing from Lincolnshire begging for promotion as "sacerdotal dignity in my native country contiguate to me ... which your worshipful benignity could some inpenetrate for me" is a wonderful find.

If you find joy in the admittedly obsolete existence of abequitate, bubulcitate and comatrix (they mean, and I did have to look them up, to ride away, to cry like a cowherd and a joint womb) then I believe you will enjoy this book. A few annoying traits unfortunately dragged this great book from a full five star review. Winchester has a rather annoying tendency to repeat the facts he has mentioned in previous chapters. A couple of times I noticed the repetition of ideas that contradicts himself, and a couple of things, such as the wailing of Broadmoor sirens in the Victorian age - they were only operational from 1952, at points disappointed an otherwise fantastic read.
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on 12 June 2006
The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the largest and most encompassing dictionaries in the world. It took almost 70 years to complete and during those years thousands of volunteers scrutinized newspapers, journals and new and old books for new words, new meanings of words and sentences that would clarify the meanings. One of the most active volunteers was the American doctor William Chester Minor. During the 20 years that the doctor collaborated he developed a friendship with the editor, James Murray. When Murray decided to visit doctor Minor, he found that the latter served a lifetime sentence in the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane after he had killed an innocent worker. The intellectual doctor Minor was found to be mad as a hatter: at night he heard voices, he claimed he was kidnapped, tortured and abused and under the floor of his cell there would live a bunch of Pygmees. The biographies of Murray, Minor and the Oxford English Dictionary are nicely interrelated in this well-written book.
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on 25 May 2004
This is a well-told tale that leads the audience through some of the politics involved in the production of the Oxford English Dictionary. The author has fictionalised the account at times through necessity, but made it clear that this is what he has done, in a story that combines murder most foul with the troubled life of the murdered.
The dictionary (“OED”) was a product of the Victorian ‘we can do anything’ optimism, and was undoubtedly a hugely ambitious project. The task would probably have been finished without the help of Dr William Chester Minor, a resident of a large country house in Berkshire (and better known as Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane). However, the work was enormously advanced by the surgeon / murderer. Minor grasped the vast amount of work involved, and had the tiem and source material to contribute freely. He also had a wonderful method in his searching out quotations for the normal and abnormal use of words. His method enabled the editorial team, led by Dr James Murray, to request help from Minor and know thay would receive an enlightening and quality answer.
Minor died in 1920, back in his native America, more that 7 years before the completion of the OED. In the completed work there are 414835 words defined, and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. Minor alone had contributed scores of thousands.
The English speaking world is indebted to the contributions of William Minor. We are also grateful to Simon Winchester for telling the tale with clarity and humour. Winchester also debunks the mythical account of the first meeting between Dr Murray and Minor. I got the feeling that the author liked the fabled account, even though he knew it not to be true (and clearly states that fact).
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on 17 November 2003
After reading the other, shining reviews of this book, I was expecting a thrilling account of the historical collaboration between two of the 19th Century's greatest minds, the twist being that one was a murderer.
Oh, well.
Now, anyone familiar with Simon Winchester (The Map that Changed the World), may remember his ability to suck the interest out of any subject. This book is no exception. It's length is a mere 200 pages yet he still manages to drag his heels. We hear about the lives of the two protagonists (a word he then attempts to interest us in, using a bewildering array of quotes and citations - probably to demonstrate a point about the arrangement of the quotes in the dictionary): Dr. Minor, tragic life, witnesses horrible things in war, kills Londoner (will leave out circumstances for those still intent in wasting four hours of their lives); Dr Murray, tragic life, scholarship astounding, wonderful, great, woo hoo for linguistics.
There is potential in this story, although not enough to warrant a book. An article would be able to summarise the main points, leaving out the constant (and sometimes downright silly) thoughts of the author.
A problem I had was the repitition of facts. If this work was much longer and followed a more complicated story, repeating parts may be acceptable. The book's length is a mere 200 pages (see what I mean?).
Anyway, the book jumps about, the story is padded out to the extreme and Simon Winchester is hailed as a great author. As an avid reader of historical non-fiction, I heave a sigh of resignation: his success with this piece will probably mean more books.
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on 4 June 2016
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