Danae's Reviews > The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
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Sep 09, 2008

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Read in September, 2008

This is a perfect example of a book that I wish had been written by David McCullough. I gave it three stars based primarily on potential--the story itself was very interesting; the writing was more like 2 stars. I cannot believe this man has been able to make his living as a writer on two continents. His main problem was being redundant, giving the general impression that his target audience was not-too-bright fifth graders (I don't need every little coincidence and connection pointed out 5 times). He also seemed to forget where he was headed from time to time, and in going from storyline to storyline (you know--from the "professor" to the "madman") sometimes felt a little jumpy; like he would get going with one and then kindof say to himself, "oh, I should get back to that other thing. Here's as good a place as any..." At any rate, the actual story was quite interesting, even if the author did manage to make 230 pages seem long. I would tentatively recommend it, but remember it's not the best-written book you're going to come across.
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05/30/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Danielle (new) - added it

Danielle Ah, David McCullough. He should write shorter books and I'd read more of them. I've had this on my to-read list for forever, but after your review, I'm thinking it might stay there awhile longer. I hate disjointed writing.


message 2: by Amy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Amy I'm about half-way through the book right now, and your review pretty much nails why it's taking me so long to slog through this not-really-that-long book. I wouldn't have continued at all if I didn't find the subject inherently interesting.

The thing that bugs me the most about his writing is his addition of details that he couldn't possibly know. If he wanted to tell a story and thinks details like what was going through the characters' minds are important, he should have just written a novel "based on a true story." As it is, reading about what the weather was like on a certain day or whatever doesn't help the story feel more authentic for me, it just distracts me because every time I wonder if this is actually noted in some written account of the events or if Winchester actually looked through old newspapers to find out what the weather was like that day or if he's just wholesale inventing. And after all that, I don't care about the yellow fog.

He does sometimes cite his sources for certain information--not in enough detail that someone could find the source and verify it, but along the lines of "A guard's report notes that..." So I assume that other details that he just throws in there are inventions. But as a reader, I resent having to figure this out on my own: it should be explicit.


Danae It is a very interesting subject-- it's rather a pity that the book isn't written better, because even though the story could be cool, it's hard to recommend to people with that many flaws. I'm willing to give him points for maybe having some kind of weather chart from that year in front of him, but you're right, it doesn't really add to the story (or maybe I'm naive for assuming he really would look that information up?) and I think there are much more egregious examples of him just making crap up. It still startles me that this man is a professional writer!


Rita Thank you for putting a lot of my own response into words Not sorry I read it, but the glibness and overgeneralizations were distracting.


message 5: by Valerie (new)

Valerie I found his use of the word 'very' (twice in one paragraph!) distracting. Haven't been able to get past page 16 because of the amount of times he used it. Any writer worth his salt, especially one writing about the OED, should be able to command a more powerful and diverse vocabulary.


message 6: by Elliott (new)

Elliott Hambrook It has been some time since I read the book, but I remember that as a nearby resident of Crowthorne, I read the book quite thoroughly.

I think Simon Winchester is a biographer whose nerdy enthusiasm for his subject matter whips up a little whirlwind designed to carry his readers along with him. The things he writes about are bookish and scholarly, not things that one would typically care to investigate and don't lend easily to narrative writing. It seems to me that the primary aim of his books is to leave you feeling as geeky about the subject as he does by the time you have finished reading it. He hopes that you will put down the book and do some more research on your own.

To criticize the 'writing style' of this book or the biographical/fictional content is missing the point entirely. Its only genuine failing in your case is to have left you without any measure of awe and reverence for the massive undertaking and peculiar idiosyncrasies of those who put together the Oxford Dictionary.

In this respect it did not fail at all in my case, which is why I give the book five stars. Even the subtlety involved in selecting this subject matter as a topic for biographical research is a stroke of genius.

To criticize his writing


message 7: by Emma (new) - rated it 1 star

Emma I agree with Amy's comment about the potential for fictionalisation, he could have written something along the lines of Julian Barnes' Arthur and George and had a lot more freedom to dramatise. Alas, blah.


Katie Ekvall Totally nailed it. Yes. The writing is very subpar & makes an interesting & fascinating historical event rather dull stuff...& what a shame.


Susan Exactly! I agree. It's one of those books you read til the end thinking something is bound to happen, but never does.


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