For anyone who has read The Professor and the Madman and thought “that was a little nice reading, but I would like to know a ton more about this whole project” this is the book for you. Winchester can be a little precious in his vocabulary choices in that “I’m writing about a DICTIONARY” way but this recouting of the eighty year projects that resulted in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is without peer. The stories range from in-depth looks at the personalities who ran the project to little examinations of the thousands of volunteers who sent in scraps of paper with etymologies on them.
And oh the scaps of paper! Just housing them was a project in and of itself, a system that access to computers and digital storage will render forever unecessary. Despite the fact that this project wrapped up the 1930s, the first fascicles came out in the 1890’s and the entire project has this quaint Victorian tinge to all of it, from the old boy network of the men involved to the dearth of ladies anywhere in this story. If you’re a fan of turn of the century engineering type projects, this should go on your “to read” list.