This book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is amazing, and contrary to what most would expect it reads like a thriller.
Although the Dictionary is of necessity at the centre of the novel, it shares that position with Dr William Chester Minor, who in spite of his unbelievably tragic life was a leading contributor to the Dictionary. Once it was decided that there was a need for a dictionary, comprising all words in the English language (Samuel Johnson's dictionary only included words he liked), quotes (using the words) and definitions (explaining the words) needed to be collected, and the population at large was asked to contribute.
Photo of Simon Winchester from www.festival.co.nz
The other person of significance is Dr James Murray, who is now considered one of the 'towering figures in British scholarship' (p. 30 Penguin edition from 1999). As the first editor of the Dictionary, he gave almost his entire working life to the project and, in doing so, became inextricably involved with W C Minor. With an unbelievable thirst for knowledge, he taught himself several languages and read all that was available on subjects such as geography, science, archaeology, history and, of course, philology. He had a formidable mind, which came to be the force behind the Big Dictionary as it was called.
The American Civil War, the Irish question, murder, lunatic asylums and the wonder of words are all part of this wonderful, informative and entertaining novel. I warmly recommend it.
Photo of Broadmoor Asylum from www.foliosociety.com