Chances are you’ve never heard of this book before and, until a couple of months ago, I hadn’t either. After stumbling upon it in a small York bookshop however I decided to take it home with me, a decision I didn’t regret.
The narrative follows the story of the Oxford English Dictionary, a story which could have proved dry were it not for the extraordinary circumstances that surrounded its establishment. James Murray, a Scottish intellect from humble beginnings, sets out alongside the London Philological Society to create a comprehensive dictionary spanning the entirety of the English language. The project has thousands of volunteers, but one alone stands out – Dr William C. Minor, an American surgeon. Despite being within a few hours of one another it is years before the two men meet. Why? Because despite being one of the most valued contributors to the OED, Minor is incarcerated in Broadmoor Asylum…for murder.
Murder is only one fraction of the story however, and the balance Winchester strikes between the curious details of Minor’s life and history of the dictionary is perfect. In many ways the story begins at the end, with the meeting of James Murray and Minor, and yet in spite of this the novel remains compelling throughout. What could easily become an account of facts carelessly strung together, instead becomes a fascinating blend of history, biography and the diversity of the English language.
Not only does Winchester begin each new chapter with a dictionary entry, but also invites the reader to seek out the dictionary for themselves, often to find the meaning of strange words such as ‘sesquipedalian’, ‘abusion’ and ‘acatalectic’ – in case you’re wondering, you’ll have to find those ones on your own this time!
By including these words that would perhaps otherwise have fallen into obscurity, Winchester’s stylish manner of writing is allowed to flourish, free of constraints. At no point does it feel laboured, and at it’s heart Winchester never loses sight of the fact that the narrative is born out of tragedy, not only concerning the victim and family of Minor’s crime, but also Minor’s saddening spiral into mental illness.
If you haven’t already read the book, what’s stopping you? I promise you won’t regret it!