A big thank you to all of those who entered our Love2Read book review competition each month last year. It was wonderful to find out what all of you were reading, and discover some new writers!
Patricia Allen has won the last Love2Read book review competition for 2012 – congratulations, Pat! She also won back in October with her entry about The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester, and was an interviewee on our podcast, Listeners in the Mist.
You can read her winning entry for December here:
The Surgeon of Crowthorne, by Simon Winchester, is an intriguing tale, including murder and madness, describing the mighty effort involved in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Though there had been attempts before Dr Johnson’s dictionary in 1755, there was no in depth help for the meanings of words. By the 19th Century the need for a comprehensive dictionary was manifest. In 1878, James Murray, a brilliant lexicographer, born in 1837, was asked to produce one. He considered the work might take several years.
Murray needed the help of hundreds of volunteers who would read ancient writings, record words, write meanings and usages for assessment.
It took years to complete the letter A. The letter T took 5 years. It would take another 44 years to complete. Altogether, more than 70 years passed to produce the first edition of the great New English Dictionary in 1928. In 1933 the first supplement was known as the Oxford English or OED.
An American medical doctor , William Chester Minor born 1834, was retired from the American Army having been a surgeon in the American Civil War. Events in 1864 had unhinged this gentle man. He was irreparably damaged psychologically and medically discharged with a pension enabling him to travel to England. Dr Minor was highly intelligent, a cultured and an educated graduate from Yale university, though one with a greedy sexual appetite.
Simon Winchester’s vivid description of mid 19th Century London is a necessary reminder for those who only know present day London. Dr Minor was living in the area of the Lambeth marshes, south of the Thames, with undrained swamps, miserable slums, stinking tanneries and soap boilers. It was an area of many brothels enabling easy access to women. One night in 1872, tormented out of his mind with paranoia, Dr Minor shot a man and was subsequently committed to the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for the criminally insane.
At Broadmoor, he became a trusted prisoner housed in comfort, rather like a gentleman’s club, with privileges, books etc. His comforts included tobacco, a penknife, coffee, bookcases of his own books (his consuming passion), clothes, his flute and music, fob watch and gold chain.
When James Murray sought volunteers for his project, Dr Minor answered the call and for decades filled his days, whilst imprisoned in his cell at Crowthorne, reading, writing, and contributing to the compilation of the OED. It became a bizarre friendship for over 30 years, between two highly intelligent gentle men who loved the written word.
James Murray aimed to assess 33 words per day but sometimes one word would take almost a full day. It was a huge undertaking.
Dr Minor would read voraciously, record the words from rare, ancient books, especially 17th C authors, and send the scripts to Oxford for assessment.
Work on the Dictionary was Dr Minor’s medication.
A change of Prison Superintendent caused removal of many privileges from and heartless treatment of Dr Minor. He became unsettled and unhappy. As he aged his mental state deteriorated, delusions increased and his memories of past sexual conquests caused such loathing of his ‘sins’ that one day in December 1902 he amputated his penis with the penknife and threw his member into the fire.
Dr Minor was taken to America by his brother, Alfred, in 1910. By then he was frail, wasted, and in ill health. He died in March 1920.
His resource books are preserved in the Bodleian Library museum in Oxford.
This was a beguiling and thrilling read.