The Professor and the Madman??? You had me at hello. If ever a book grabbed me right from the title, this is it.

“The Professor and the Madman” centers on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, almost undoubtedly the greatest undertaking ever made in the English language. The scope of the project was staggering: over a span of 70 years, volunteers submitted an estimated 5 million quotations. From these submissions, the book used 1.8 million quotes from 4,500 literary works written by 2,700 authors. The finished version listed 252,200 entries and 414,800 word forms, weighing in at 15,490 pages.

The “Professor”, in this case, is Sir James Murray (pictured above). Murray presided over the greater portion of the 70 years of the OED’s formation. Spoiler alert, because here comes the bombshell in the story – after many years of correspondence and collaboration with Dr. William Chester Minor, the dictionary’s most prolific contributor, Murray finds out that Minor has submitted his thousands of quotations *from a cell in an insane asylum*.

A passage that really had resonance for me:

One in a hundred people today suffer from schizophrenia: Nearly all of them, if treated with compassion and good chemistry, can have some kind of dignified life, of a kind that was denied, for much of his time to Doctor Minor.

Except, of course, that Minor had his dictionary work. And there’s a cruel irony in this – that if he had been so treated, he might never have felt impelled to work on it as he did. By offering him mood-altering sedatives, as they would have done in Edwardian times, or treating him as today with such antipsychotic drugs as quetiapine or risperidone, many of his symptoms of madness might have gone away – but he might well have felt disinclined or unable to perform his work for Doctor Murray.

In a sense doing all those dictionary slips was his medication; in a way they became his therapy. The routine of his quiet and cellbound intellectual stimulus, month upon month, year upon year, appears to have provided him with at least a measure of release from his paranoia. His sad situation only worsened when that stimulus was gone: when the great book ceased to function as his lodestone, when the one fixed point on which his remarkable but tortured brain was able to concentrate became detached, so then he began to spiral downward, and his life began to ebb.

One must feel a strange gratitude, then, that his treatment was never good enough to divert him from his work. The agonies that he must have suffered in those terrible asylum nights have granted us all a benefit, for all time. He was mad, and for that, we have reason to be glad. A truly savage irony, on which it is discomfiting to dwell.

There were times in the book where I had to wonder if perhaps William Minor was faking it when he constantly complained to his caretakers that he was tormented by people who would come from under the floor and down from the ceiling to perform heinous molestations on him while he slept in his cell, but any wonder of whether this guy was faking it fell to the wayside when we learn he subjected himself to an autopeotomy. If you’re wondering what an autopeotomy is, the word was new to me as well. Turns out it means the dude cut off his own penis.

Thankfully, I’ve never been anywhere near that level of crazy but I can very much identify with the wonderful, meditative properties found in working obsessively and compulsively. When your entire consciousness is absorbed in the task at hand, the work becomes a medicine. It is at that point that all troubles of mind and spirit cease to exist.

Link: More from Simon Winchester on the entry of “autopeotomy” into the language and English officially hitting 1,000,000 words.