Tag Archives: Simon Winchester

Book Club Reflection: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

18 Jan

My book club met last week to discuss The Professor and the Madman. We usually read at least one nonfiction book per year and I’m glad we picked this one. The subject was one few of us knew about before reading the book so we were all amazed at what we were reading.

Our discussion leader is a library and we meet at a restaurant on the other side of the parking lot from her location. She was able to grab the compact version of the Oxford English Dictionary with her to our meeting. If that’s the compact version, I’d hate to lift the full version! This copy had the text of nine pages printed on each one. It comes with a magnifier so you can read it!

We started off discussing the author, Simon Winchester, in detail. He’s written a lot more than I realized. The title listing at the beginning didn’t cover all his titles. He picked up his pace of publication in the 1970s and this title is twenty years old. His focus seems to be accessible and readable nonfiction. I’ve heard this referred to as narrative nonfiction and these characteristics are the same things I enjoy in Erik Larson’s books. We found it interesting that Winchester dedicated the book to George Merritt. One of the complaints that several members had about the book was that Winchester’s opinions and voice came through strongly. It was clear he sympathized with Minor. He heralded all of the things he was able to accomplish despite his illness and this rubbed some people the wrong way. Minor was a murderer, even if he was ill. He continued to show signs of illusions and even harmed himself. He may have been a genius, but he needed to be in that facility. He wasn’t misunderstood or unrightfully prosecuted, he was ill.

We looked at the book as having three main characters: Minor, Murray, and the dictionary. Murray was a unique man in that he was so dedicated to a single project and didn’t waver for 58 years. He was also very accepting of Minor despite his housing. We wondered how he would be received today. If it was found out someone with schizophrenia had contributed to a project like the OED, would people react more severely now or in the 1800s?

Minor was one of the top contributors to the OED. While many came and went and some seemed in it for the free books, he kept on. A large part of that was the free time he had in his home. He’s very fortunate that he had the money to receive treatment in that facility. His life would have been very different with his condition if he’d been in a different setting. Presently, paranoid schizophrenia like we conjecture Minor suffered from is treated with ‘upper’ and ‘downer’ pills. We wondered how Minor would have lived with modern treatment. Would the pills have hampered his mind and made it impossible for him to contribute to the project like he did?

The dictionary was a truly massive feat. We were impressed that it was not abandoned during the long effort. It made us really think about life before a dictionary. It’s crazy to think that men like Shakespeare wrote without that resource that many of us take for granted. It’s relatively recently that the dictionary was completed so much of human history was lived without such a resource.

Our next selection is one I’ve already read and really didn’t like. I’m interested to see if the discussion sheds any positive light on it.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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Book Review: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (3/5)

2 Jan

I’d seen this title around a few times but I don’t think I’d even read the subtitle before my book club selected it for the January book. It has been a while since I read some nonfiction so I was happy to pick this up at the end of December and enjoy a true story. I read through it faster than I thought I would and really enjoyed it.

Cover image via Goodreads

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

Summary from Goodreads:

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story–a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of the thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions, Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray’s offer was regularly–and mysteriously–refused.

Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane–and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

This was a story I never knew I wanted to know. The process of putting together a dictionary in Murray’s time is astounding. Doing it all by hand and looking up source quotes the way they did is impressive and so time-consuming that it’s no wonder the project took so many years. Minor’s condition is equally fascinating. That a man can appear so educated and calm and suffer from such extreme delusions wasn’t something I’d heard of before. Minor was obviously a very smart man suffering from a very extreme mental illness. Hearing how it was treated was an interesting read as well.

Winchester never tried to tie a personality to the men that he couldn’t derive from letters and medical records. In that way, he attacked this project much like Minor and Murray attached the dictionary project. From that material, he found their personalities and brought it forward. Murray was very studious and Minor, in his own way, was as well.

Minor was fascinating to read about. Having lived in the asylum for so long, there was a lot of background on him and his condition that Winchester was able to draw from. I loved the descriptions of his accommodations. It almost sounded like my ideal study! That tied with the details of his night terrors kept me fascinated.

Murray faced a huge, almost insurmountable challenge in the OED. While I’ve never faced a similarly large task, his determination was something I could relate to. When I’m assigned a work task or school task, I tend to attack it like I’m attacking Mt. Everest. I come up with a plan, pass out assignments, and put my nose to the grindstone until it’s done. Murray’s determination to see the dictionary finished was a strategy I could see myself taking on.

Simon Winchester
Image via Anderson’s Bookshop

If it’s not clear, I enjoyed the account of Minor living in the asylum best. It must have given Winchester a lot of source material because it was so detailed. In contrast, I felt his account of Minor in America and Murray were a bit vague. Especially with the fascinating source material, I thought this section was very well written.

I felt there was a lot less about the writing of the dictionary than I would have liked. Winchester talks briefly about the system or sorting and storing the slips of paper with definitions and quotations and talks about the history of dictionaries quite a bit. With the title of the book, I was hoping for a bit more on how the typesetting and decisions of what words to include were done.

Sometimes, we have to separate a thing from those who created it. There are beautiful buildings that were built or designed by terrible people. Take Disney World for instance. Or Ford Motor Company. These people led lives that would be deplorable to many people who work for or patronize those companies. But we separate them. We have to separate Minor and his illness from the amazing feats he accomplished and the work he did for the OED.

Writer’s Takeaway: There were very well researched parts and parts where Winchester said he was extrapolating based on what he could find. I appreciated this. Sometimes, the extrapolation is where all the fun is and I appreciated seeing what Winchester believed might have happened and knowing that it was a guess. I sometimes wish there was more of this in narrative non-fiction.

The book was enjoyable and fun though still a little dry in spots. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester | Pages Unbound Reviews
Book Review: Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman | The Editor and the Beast
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester | Booked All Week
The Professor and the Madman | I Know What You Should Read

WWW Wednesday, 27-December-2017

27 Dec

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


Currently reading: I made some good progress on The Color Purple by Alice Walker during lunch last week. There was no one in the office to talk to me so I took a little longer reading and wasn’t sidetracked as often. Yay for the holiday slow down!
I’m flying with The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. This plot is a great slow burn and it has me seriously hooked. Eugenides is a great writer and I love the small nods to Detroit he adds.
My husband said I came home mad when I listened to NPR in the car so to counteract that, I got an audiobook on CD. It’s one I’ve wanted to read for a while, A Widow for One Year by John Irving. Irving is a favorite author of mine and I’m always excited to read one of his books. It’s slow going during the holidays when I’m not driving a lot, but I’ll get through it.
I just started Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. It’s still too early to tell if this one is going to be as heartbreaking as the title and cover make me think!

Recently finished: I wrapped up The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester on Sunday morning. It feels so good to have another book finished before the end of the year. I didn’t think I’d finish this one before I left for vacation so I’m really glad to see it wrapped up and counting toward my 2017 total. I probably won’t have a review for it up until next week. I’m a bit bogged down with the holidays and party hosting at the moment.

Reading Next: I always pick a book to read in Spanish each year and for 2018 I’m returning to the world of Harry and I’ll be reading Harry Potter y las Reliquias de la Muerte by J.K. Rowling. I’m really looking forward to finishing my Spanish read-through of the series. I may have to start over at the beginning!


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 20-December-2017

20 Dec

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


Currently reading: I haven’t had much time to read The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I usually read my ebooks during lunch at work but with the holidays coming up, we’ve been having a lot of office lunches or lunches out so I haven’t read much.
I’m really enjoying The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester but, again, my reading has slowed down a bit. I’ve been so tired before bed that I spent four days on a single chapter. I’ll keep pushing on and I hope this is finished before the new year.
I have made some good progress on The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I’ve been baking a lot and wrapping presents and there’s nothing better than having a book in your ear to make those things feel like they’re flying by.

Recently finished: Little surprise, but nothing finished this week. After finishing three last week, I didn’t expect much from myself.
On the bright side, I got all three book reviews written! Last Thursday was This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman. I really enjoyed this one and gave it Four out of Five Stars. Pick it up if you can, it’s short and poignant.
This week I wrote about Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie on Monday. I really enjoy the series and I plan to continue on with the fourth one. I gave this one Four out of Five Stars
Yesterday I posted about Singing My Him Song by Malachy McCourt. It wasn’t my favorite, but I still liked it. Three out of Five Stars.

Reading Next: My plan is still to read Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. I’ll be starting as soon as I finish Madman.
I also picked out a book for my road trip to Ohio with my husband Christmas morning. We’re going to listen to Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. I’ve seen really good things about this one and with a movie coming out soon, I want to read/listen to it before I see the film.


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 13-December-2017

13 Dec

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


Currently reading: What a week! I started three new books this week! The first was The Color Purple by Alice Walker. This book was recommended to me a while back and I was excited to grab a copy as an ebook and start reading it. This is a short one and those seem to make better ebooks for me because I read them so slowly. We’ll see how long this one takes.
The second was The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. I’m really enjoying this one so far! It’s been a while since I read some non-fiction that read like fiction. This one is keeping me up at night already and I think I’ll finish it quickly.
My next audiobook is The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I really enjoyed Middlesex and I hope this one is equally engaging. It will help if it’s also set in Michigan! So far, that’s not looking likely, but I’ll press on.

Recently finished: Three new reads and three books finished! The first was This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman which I finished while waiting at the chiropractor’s office. I enjoyed this one a lot and I thought it was a really great angle on a big problem. Plus, the ending wasn’t predictable which was a huge plus! Look for my review tomorrow.
The second was Singing My Him Song by Malachy McCourt. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as Schulman’s book but it was still a good read. I had some problems with the pacing and change in topics. My review will be up next week so take a look then at my reasoning.
I also finished Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie! That’s right, I finished all my books from last week. This is my mini celebration of finishing my class and it feels wonderful. I really liked this historical fiction book and I plan to continue with the series.

Reading Next: The next physical book will be Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. I wish I could start it sooner but I can’t find an ebook or audiobook of this one so it will have to wait.


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 6-December-2017

6 Dec

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


CurrentlyreadingI made slower progress in This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman this week. I got to read some during lunch at work but nothing like the great progress I made the last week. I think this will be two weeks or so for me to finish it. It’s really good now so it’s hard to think it could be that long.
I’m so close to finishing Singing My Him Song by Malachy McCourt! I won’t be surprised if I finish this one today. I’m still enjoying it, but I’m also looking forward to reading something new. I think my review will explain that a bit better than this rambling.
I’ve gotten into the mystery of Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie. I like these characters a lot so I’m enjoying the back-and-forth and seeing Russo struggle to figure out what’s going on. I think I’ve got a week or two left on this one, too.

Recently finished: Nothing this week. After two last week, I’m not sad about this at all, it’s how things work. I was able to write a review, though. My review for Our Souls at Night by Ken Haruf was posted yesterday. Please go check it out. I have two more posts coming about this book next week, a movie review and a book club reflection.

Reading Next: I nabbed my copy of The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester from the library over the weekend. It looks like a shorter read than I was anticipating so I’m hopeful of getting it started and finished before the new year. My book club meets in early January and I’m excited to see that group again, I’ve missed the meetings in six months of this year!
I’ll start Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin as soon as I finish Madman. Unfortunately, neither of these were available as audiobooks through my library so I’ll be reading both in print and it will probably take me right up until the meeting to finish them!


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 29-November-2017

29 Nov

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


Currently readingI read a lot of This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman while I was on vacation. My in-laws watch a lot of football and I did a lot of reading on my phone while they yelled at the TV. I’m over halfway through this now and really enjoying it.
I’m over halfway through Singing My Him Song by Malachy McCourt as well. This one is OK, not my favorite but for sure entertaining. I’m hoping to have it finished next week.
I finished my audiobook on Thanksgiving so I started a new one right away. I’m listening to Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie. This is the third book in her Medicus series and I’m loving it as much as the last.

Recently finishedTwo finished! Here’s the progress I’ve been waiting for. The first was Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf which I finished Wednesday night right before my flight. This book was really good and I have a lot to post about it. Look for a review, a movie review, and a book club reflection in the next two weeks! I gave the book Three out of Five Stars.
I also finished The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer on Thanksgiving. My husband and I went on a run so we’d have room for all the yummy food and I finished this as we turned back on my sister-in-law’s street. Perfect timing! I also gave it Three out of Five Stars.

Reading Next: I’ve got two book club selections to read by January so I’ll likely tackle one of those next. The first is The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. I haven’t read a non-fiction book in a while so I’m a bit excited about this one.
The second is Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. I have a feeling this one is going to pull at my heartstrings so I’ll be sure to keep a box of tissues nearby!


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!