Saturday, 3 October 2009

Murder, Madness and the Oxford English Dictionary

Until a couple of weeks ago, I'd only listened to children's audio books (in the car) or my own - sounds a bit self-centred, I know. Anyway, I was recently lent tapes of The Surgeon of Crowthorne. A tale of Murder, Madness and the OED, by Simon Winchester.

Here is a blurb: "The compiling of the Oxford English Dictionary was a monumental task. It took 50 years, even with the help of numerous contributors. Among the most prolific was William Chester Minor, who sent editor James Murray thousands of extracts. On many occasions, Murray invited this mysterious correspondent to Oxford, but the invitation was always declined. Finally stirred by curiosity, Murray himself went to visit Minor.
What he found was shocking; Minor lived in Broadmoor asylum. He was rich, an expert on the English language, and a qualified surgeon, but he was imprisoned as a lunatic for murder." Plenty of reviews on Amazon for this one.
The author reads well, bringing to life the somewhat dry and dusty story of dictionary compilation. Minor was a surgeon in the American Civil War who apparently was forced to brand a deserter on the face. This is held to be one of the reasons he gradually succumbed to insanity and murdered a man in London, after which he was sent to Broadmoor. Fortunately, Victorian editor James Murray was a less colourful character, and one learns a lot about the history of dictionaries. A nice soothing subject.

It's pleasant to be read to, and I often found I'd fallen asleep with the headphones in my ears. Only thing is, I was listening on an old-fashioned Walkman-type player, and if I went to sleep I found it hard to find my place next day. Much easier in a real book, but I can see the advantages of passive listening, not least because serious-minded audiobooks seem to be an aid to insomnia.


Debs said...

What a fascinating story.

I've never listened to an audio book, but my dad has sworn by them for years, as he loves to listen to something when he goes to sleep at night. I think I may try this out.

Anonymous said...

What a crazy fellow! The book sounds pretty interesting.
I miss audio books. They are pretty rare in France. And I love the way books look in my library.

Rattling On said...

I've never listened to one either, like Debs.
I find it very difficult to process information unless I read it to myself. I was once being trained on a new job and the trainer sat and read chunks from a manual. I actually nodded off. Very embarrassing. I had to explain it just wasn't doing it for me! She then just handed over the manual and left me to it.
I eventually became the regional trainer for that company and offered several ways to access information...

Lane said...

That book sounds fascinating.

I like the idea of listening to audio books whilst out walking but it's probably not the safest thing to do.
I think they'd be great on a long car journey though. Think I might try that - thanks:-)

cheshire wife said...

I, too, have never tried listening to audio books, but that one certainly sounds interesting.

Faye said...

Hi Susie--thanks for visiting my blog via bloggy buddy Debs, I'm sure. It's always interesting to learn about another "working" English writer. Before retiring I traveled a lot and passed the time listening to audio books in the car. Particularly enjoyed the recordings when read by the author.

I scrolled down through some of your most recent posts and see that you're keen on gardens. I too love English gardens, both home and grand style. I've had a chance to see quite a few of your great gardens on horticultural tours over the past 10 years. I've also done a six day wayfarers walk from Newby Bridge to Whitby through Lake District, Dales, and North Moors. Beautiful country when not looking at my feet!

I'll check out some of your books. I can get them through the Book Depositry with no trouble on this side of the pond.

Susie Vereker said...

Thanks for all your interesting comments. I'll be posting about my next read soon.