Thursday, August 22, 2013

Completed: The Professor and the Madman

Dear Jenny,

I read this book in June, so I'm still catching up here. I love the subtitle of this book: "A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary." Kind of a big tease, isn't it? And yet... that is, in fact, what this book is about. (Side note -- as I was writing this, you published this writeup, also talking about crazy subtitles in non-fiction books. Heh.)

One notable part of this book is that I found it one of the most "readable" works of non-fiction I have ever read. It made me wonder about what makes a book/story more readable (or less). I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that I enjoyed this book.

Of course, only two months later, I can barely remember it (le sigh) -- let's see what the synopsis says on the back of the book:
Masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857, it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

That about sums it up. I did mark a few pages, so let's flip through it and see what notes Past Kelly has left for Present Kelly...

Oh, yeah! Every chapter begins with a word and a definition from the OED that pertains so that topic. There were a lot of fun ones, my favorite being:  Sesquipedalian -- a very long and polysyllabic word. Also: "A person or thing that is a foot and a half in height or length." [75] Ha! Next time I need to say something is 18 inches long, I may need to say that it's "sesquipedalian." (Thereby also using a sesquipedalian word -- so meta!)

The perspective of what the world was like before we had the first complete dictionary is absolutely fascinating to me. You know what a research junkie I am -- imagining this world is like trying to think about a time when we believed the world to be flat -- whaaa---? Check it:
Shakespeare was not even able to perform a function that we consider today as perfectly normal and ordinary a function as reading itself. He could not, as the saying goes, "look something up." Indeed the very phrase -- when it is used in the sense of "searching for something in a dictionary or encyclopaedia or other book of reference" -- simply did not exist." [80]
I often struggle to remember what the world was like before in Internet, but the idea of a world with no dictionary?! Oh, I need to sit down. Where are the smelling salts?

In fact, perhaps that is part of why this book was so interesting to me -- I have long been in love with the dictionary. In 1987, Random House released its expanded 2nd edition of the "Unabridged Dictionary" (OMG! Like the one at the library!) It was the only thing I asked for for Christmas that year. My grandfather bought it for me and I still have it. In fact, here's the inscription:
(Hilarious that he wrote "Granpaw" here -- surprisingly, he was a goofball!)

I was going to take a photo of the dictionary itself, but I'll do one better... here is a photograph [of a photograph] that I took in 1996 that I still carry around in my wallet, 17 years later (!!) It's Kaesea, sitting on my dictionary:

Ignore the glowing eyes -- check those darling white paws! And that SUPER fluffy tail! 
Someone saw this photo once and said, "Wow - small cat!" I said, "Nope. Big book." (Kaesea was probably about 11 pounds when this photo was taken.) Heh.

(BTW, I keep a very clean wallet --  this photo is the only frivolous item in there. So you know -- My cat and my dictionary: a couple of true loves.) (Note the Chronicles of Narnia also making an appearance there, as well as this book that you bought me years ago that did, I must report, eventually get replaced by the Internet.)

I still love that dictionary, although it's more sentimental than practical at this point. If I'm looking up words, I'm using some sort of eDictionary. But pre-Internet?! This thing got a ton of use... in fact, it's pretty ratty now but I can't see ever getting rid of it (it's been with me in 4 different states!) I used to want a full-on library stand for it, but never had the room... maybe I should look into that again now that we've got a big house... hrm.

But I digress.

Back on this whole The Pre-dictionary World mind-blowing concept. I underlined this passage: "The English language was spoken and written -- but at the time of Shakespeare it was not defined, not fixed." [83] Again -- where are my smelling salts? This is just too lawless for me to even imagine.

Of course, when it came to laying down the law, plenty of people had to pipe up and take it to extremes, right? Here we go: "[Jonathan] Swift was the fiercest advocate of all. He wrote to the earl of Oxford to express his outrage that words like bamboozle, uppish, and -- of all things -- couldn't were appearing in print." [91] So here's someone who wanted not only rules to govern the usage of words, but to also outlaw words he deemed "unacceptable." Which was not at all the goal of the OED -- it was simply to document all of the words in use, regardless of how they felt about them.
And so the thinking of great literary men went -- if longitude was important, if the defining of color, length, mass, and sound was vital -- why was the same import not given to the national tongue. As one pamphleteer wailed, appropriately: "We have neither Grammar nor Dictionary, neither Chart nor Compass, to guide us through the wide sea of Words." [92]
This book gets into the nitty-gritty of how words were researched, documented, and, in the end, actually defined. And I ate it up. When I started writing this post, I thought, "Wait... what happened in this book?" Now that I'm flipping through and looking at my notes, I remember it all -- and part of the reason that I cannot remember this book is that I burned through it. I guess part of it is the writer's style, but, based on the above photos, it's also probably about my extreme interest in dictionaries.

It took decades to write the OED and the process by which it happened (tons of people researching, filling out scraps of paper, organizing those scraps, etc.) (All done via the postal service!) was absolutely fascinating to me. The titillating subtitle of this book refers to the state of mind of one of the biggest contributors and that story was somewhat interesting, but it wasn't what I really found engrossing about this book -- it was the dictionary stuff that really got me.

So, there ya go: Read about what interests you. (Um... duh, Kelly.)



  1. I have read this book! OMG, I had forgotten, but it was a super interesting and amazing story.

    Meanwhile, this was sort of a hilarious review. The whole "lawless" English made me laugh out loud. But our language is still rather lawless! One of my favorite quotes is this one, which I once saw on a T-Shirt: English is a language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages, and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary." We're constantly stealing stuff from other languages, which makes the entire act of trying to "fix" it all that more challenging.

    Kaesea on the dictionary. Sniff.

  2. While I agree that it's ever-changing and evolving (and I *am* okay with that!) the idea that you couldn't even "look something up" is too much for me to bear -- even if a word changes/evolves/is added, we can still get the low-down on it now. Pre-dictionary? You were really screwed.

  3. Yeah, it really is a shocking idea! No dictionary. I just can't even.

    Meanwhile, I have what looks like a good aBook rec for you. I read th novel, Americanah, and I LOVED it. It's such a fresh voice and a different kind of story, and this review says the audiobook is excellent. Check it out:

  4. THANK YOU for recommending Americanah to me -- I loved this book and the narrator was amazing. Totally terrific.

    And, on a much broader level, thank you for bringing it to my attention that Salon reviews *Audio* books. I have come a long way in my aBook Journey (I have listened to over 80 aBooks since August 2011! It's been a good journey!) and I definitely appreciate that there are 2 parts to an aBook review: 1. The story itself and 2. The narrator. So I will definitely have to tune in to this feed from now on:

    I remember arguing with Bill when I first started listening to aBooks as to whether or not it counted as "reading," but when I look at the list of books I have listened to (thanks, Audible, for making it easy to see) and I think about the stories within, I am sometimes even surprised that I listened to some of these books, rather than reading them myself. When I discuss these books with someone else who read (vs listened to) them, it's all about the story, not about how it got into my brain.

    A good narrator is "absent" -- just get the story into my brain and get out. A bad narrator actually takes away from the story. (Haven't had too many of these, but I *might* not have hated The Marriage Plot as much if I had read it myself. Maybe.) But a *great* narrator actually adds another element to the story. Americanah definitely had that... I'm so glad I listened to this book. The narration really brought an extra texture to the book that I might have missed if I had read it myself.

    Side note: In reading reviews of Americanah, I discovered that her cousin's name is spelled "D-I-K-E" which I would have pronounced to rhyme with "bike" in my head. But the narrator says it like, "D-K" (dee-kay), which is *so* much better for me. :)