The making of a dictionary: The Professor and the Madman

What do you know about the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary?  Not the  trivia that gets you the tiebreaker in your quiz competition, but the actual story behind its making and the enormity of the project. If there was a biography written about it wouldn’t you snap it up to read it? Do you really need enticements like “…the unlikely friendship”, “…madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men” etc? And yet, that is the way the publishers decided to sell this book.  And having set up the stage for a melodrama, they end up with an anticlimax that is so excruciating you can no longer laugh it off. I suppose I should have realized from the blurb on the front cover  “A tale of murder, insanity and making of the Oxford English Dictionary” that the making of the dictionary would be given the last priority. All I can say in excuse is that my kindle version did not have this blurb and so was unprepared.

It is a pity that such an interesting story should be written this way. It is not just the oxymorons (almost precisely) or the disruptive narrative but the hyperbole and the complete fantasizing that gets my goat. It is a story about the writing of the  Dictionary and it uses words inappropriately. Here is an example:” ….. said an anonymous note in the hospital ward archives” then a paragraph later ” …that note was written by the warden” !!! If the author of the note is known, the note is not “anonymous” is it?!

But what is worse is that the author wants to cover so much ground. He is not content with just narrating the interesting events that lead to two very dissimilar men working on the same project and forming an unlikely friendship, the character of each of these men, and their personal history. He also wants to write a treatise on Victorian mental disease treatment practices, fantasize about a thoroughly non-existent relationship between one of the protagonists and the survivor of his actions (even when there seems to be no factual evidence to support such  theory!)  and comment on the supposed meagerness of the funeral arrangements. All I can say is that the editor seems to have mislaid his red pen.

As if this wasn’t enough, the plot devices* are so atrocious I practically felt like throwing the book at the author. I realize that biographers always have to contend with a lack of facts partly because of lost or hard to find evidence and partly because the events or the protagonist lived in an era where answers to certain questions where beyond the scope of prevalent technology. In such instances they resort to hypotheses about what could have happened. But these suppositions are usually presented with some evidence of plausibility. Here the hypotheses are completely out of the blue. I can only imagine the editors said, spice it up a bit there, mate, give the readers something to turn the page for.**

Even if that were the case, could you not keep it succinct? Do you have to go on and on about something that you have no reason to believe happened? Not content with fantasizing, must you also ramble? There are so many repetitions and so many seemingly random incidences thrown in in a haphazard way that it obstructs the flow of the narrative and makes for really hard reading. It is like that old uncle or grandpa at family get-togethers whose reminiscences are not only repetitive but also convoluted and never-ending.

I think I would have been better served reading the companion reading for the actual facts than this book. And so I say read only if you are an extraordinarily patient person who has a really high tolerance for boredom or if you are marooned on a lonely island with nothing else to do and nobody to talk to. Everybody else stick to Wiki.

* I realize this is not a fiction piece and hence cannot have plot devices, but trust me, there is so much fantasizing of the cause of the “madman’s” madness it might as well have been fiction.

** I can write this in a review, which by definition is a personal opinion about something. You can’t write this in a biography, which is supposed to be an account of actual events/people/lives; i.e. not a personal opinion.


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