Booktalk: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

In the months since I started the Be a Better Booktalker podcast, I’ve found myself wondering on a weekly basis which of my (ever-dwindling) collection of booktalks I should share next.  Do I have enough booktalks for a middle school audience?  For a high school audience?  For older children?  Do I have enough boy books to balance out all the girl books?  Do I have enough nonfiction to balance out all the fiction?  And then every once in a while I get a suggestion from an unexpected place.  At the beginning of January, the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast aired an episode about a very unusual contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.  I decided to take that as a sign that it was time for me to share a booktalk I wrote a while ago about a nonfiction bestseller that was written for adult audiences but which I have shared with lots of high school classes.

Oh, and by the way, the biggest laugh I ever got from presenting this booktalk was in a class whose teacher was a HUGE fan of the OED (and apparently never stopped extolling its virtues to her class).  The kids got a big kick out of learning that this “perfect” resource had such a weird history.

The Professor and the Madman is one of many bestsellers by prolific author Simon Winchester.  Go check out his website to learn more about this book and the rest of his fascinating nonfiction stories.

[ETA: Part 2 of the Stuff You Missed in History podcast about W.C. Minor — in which they mention how helpful Winchester’s book was in their research — was just released.  Click here to listen to that episode.]


According to a popular myth, one of the strangest meetings in literary history took place between Dr. James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Dr. William Chester Minor, one of the dictionary’s greatest contributors.  Dr, Murray found it odd that no one he spoke to had ever actually seen Dr. Minor, and that they knew him only through the slips of paper that he sent through the mail.  In fact, he sent so many slips through the mail, and was such a great contributor, that he was invited to a special dinner for the dictionary’s staff and contributors … but Dr. Minor never came.  So Dr. Murray decided to visit Dr. Minor at his home so that they could finally meet.  But when he arrived at the red brick mansion that Dr. Minor had given as his address, he was astounded to learn that the building he was standing in was the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, and that Dr. Minor had been living there as a patient for over twenty years.  Like I said, this story is a popular myth, so the meeting didn’t happen exactly this way, but it did happen.  Now you can learn the true story of the strange connection between two men who were alike in so many ways, although one of them was sane and the other was not.  And you’ll also learn the story of the Oxford English Dictionary – one of the most important reference works of all time, one that would take twelve volumes and seventy years to complete.

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