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the Complete Review
the complete review - history/biography

The Professor and the Madman

(The Surgeon of Crowthorne)

Simon Winchester

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To purchase The Professor and the Madman

Title: The Professor and the Madman
Author: Simon Winchester
Genre: History/Biography
Written: 1998
Length: 242 pages
Availability: The Professor and the Madman - US
The Surgeon of Crowthorne - UK
The Professor and the Madman - Canada
Le fou et le professeur - France
Der Mann, der die Wörter liebte - Deutschland
  • US title: The Professor and the Madman
  • UK title: The Surgeon of Crowthorne.
  • US subtitle: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
  • UK subtitle: A Tale of Murder, Madness, and the Love of Words.
  • Publishing subtext: why make life simple when you can complicate it ?
  • Estimated man-hours spent in figuring out which title/subtitle to go with: 50.
  • Estimated man-hours lost by reading public due to resulting confusion: 500.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a great story, engagingly (if somewhat simply) told

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe A 2/9/1998 Robert Taylor
British Medical Journal B 3/10/1998 Jeff Aronson
The Economist A+ 16/5/1998 .
The Guardian B 27/6/1998 D.J. Taylor
Literary Review B+ 6/1998 John Banville
New Statesman B 3/7/1998 Roz Kaveney
The NY Times A 16/9/1998 Richard Bernstein
The NY Times Book Rev. A 30/8/1998 David Walton
Salon . 3/9/1998 Charles Taylor
San Francisco Chronicle B 18/10/1998 Andrea Behr
The Spectator B 6/6/1998 Christopher Howse
Der Spiegel . 19/1/1999 Uwe Schütte
Time . 14/9/1998 Jesse Birnbaum
The Times A+ 18/6/1998 Will Self
USA Today A- 27/8/1998 Bob Minzesheimer
Wall Street Journal A 14/9/1998 Daniel Mark Epstein
The Washington Post B- 23/8/1998 Mark Rozzo

  Review Consensus:

  A fun story, well presented, though opinions vary greatly as to whether Winchster's style is appropriate or good.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)his is a whimsical little offering. The re-creations of real events - notably the Lambeth murder - creak with mock-period archness. Quaint stylistic flourishes abound. Above all, there is a faint sense of material carefully moulded to its form." - D.J. Taylor, The Guardian

  • "No doubt I will not be the last to remark that this is the most fascinating book Patrick McGrath did not write." - John Banville, Literary Review

  • "The elegant curio (Winchester) has created is as enthralling as a good story can be and as informative as any history aspires to be." - Charles Taylor, Salon

  • "(An) intriguing if somewhat overwritten book." - Andrea Behr, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "For all its journalistic annoyances this is a cracking read." - Christopher Howse, The Spectator

  • "Simon Winchester beweist nun, daß ein Buch über Wörterbücher alles andere als eine langweilige Angelegenheit sein kann. Die wahre Geschichte um Mord, Wahnsinn und die Liebe zu den Worten, die er erzählt, liest sich so spannend wie ein Krimi." - Uwe Schütte, Der Spiegel

  • "Simon Winchester's effortlessly clear, spare prose is the perfect vehicle for the tale." - Will Self, The Times

  • "This is a fine and peculiar book. It's no wonder a movie is in the works." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

  • "In this elegant book the writer has created a vivid parable, in the spirit of Nabokov and Borges." - Daniel Mark Epstein, Wall Street Journal

  • "Winchester's history of the OED is brisk and entertaining but sometimes exaggeratedly so; he risks sounding like an episode of "Lifestyles of the Victorian Sublibrarians."" - Mark Rozzo, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Seizing the marvelous story of the murderer Dr. William Chester Minor, incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, and his contribution to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Winchester has fashioned an entertaining little book. Relating the circumstances of the bizarre murder, as well as Minor's background and what might have led to his descent into madness, Winchester provides a good account of this peculiar person. He is similarly successful in introducing the great work of James Murray, the guiding hand behind the OED, as well as in describing the work necessary to create this monumental dictionary.
       The unusual histories of these two men, and the great work which they were both involved in, make for a fine and fun read. Occasionally, Winchester tags on a journalistic embellishment that has no place here, and he does hypothesize freely (though generally also openly) in painting his canvas. With no notes and only a vague chapter suggesting further reading the book is not quite as useful as it might be for readers interested in exploring the subject further.
       Nevertheless, for what it sets out to do -- accessibly tell a fun tale -- it is a fine book, and we can recommend it.

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The Professor and the Madman: Reviews: The Oxford English Dictionary:
  • Official OED site. Look for the word of the day.
Simon Winchester: Other books by Simon Winchester under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Simon Winchester works as a journalist and has written a multitude of books.

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© 1999-2011 the complete review

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