Somewhere in Redfellow Hovel is a copy of Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne. That elegantly tells the story of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray (the dictionary’s driving force and editor-of-genius) and Dr W.C.Minor (The US Army doctor immured in Broadmoor for a lunatic murder).
Over the weekend Malcolm came into possession of another title by Simon Winchester, a self-vaunted “first edition”, entitled The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
In content, of course, they are one and the same: the UK and the US editions. Just as, infamously, the former colonials could not cope with Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George III, because they must have missed the earlier two parts, they could not be expected to fathom “Crowthorne”. To which any realist, like Malcolm, will wonder: which is the more succinct, more memorable title?
So a spurious professorship had to be wished on autodidact Murray. How else could the draper’s son from the Borders, who left school at 14, was headmaster of the local school by the age of twenty, rise to his knighted eminence on the back of such a limited formal education? Well, folks, it’s that frontier tradition …
That gripe apart, what Malcolm likes here is the faintest touch of the exotic: here’s an alien in our midst. It is most assuredly a well-produced little tome, and will doubtless outlive the paperback (if that elusive volume should reappear in this time/space continuum).
In return, Malcolm resolves to deposit on the “put-and-take” carousel at Maplewood NJ Transit Station a couple of UK paperbacks of American literature. In the suburban bastions of aggressive capitalism (though, laudably, they vote Democratic), this is a small gesture of practical communism.
Malcolm’s usual wont is to contribute to the ethic while subverting the wider culture. He likes to speculate on the consequences of such small actions. Example: one trip he donated the UK edition of David Brin’s The Postman: near eight hours on VS001, in cattle class, requires the lightest of literature. A decent novel, discredited by a film derived therefrom: but what did the New Jersey commuter reckon he (or she) had? Particularly when the book-mark (the receipt from Heathrow’s bookstall) fluttered out.
That old saw (you knew it was coming!)
George Bernard Shaw commonly gets the credit for the aphorism. Oscar Wilde, though, hit that particular button earlier in The Canterville Ghost:
Mrs. Otis … was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.
Perhaps, though, that modern cliché derives from the line given Robert Mitchum in Stanley Doren’s The Grass is Greener:
Sometimes I’m convinced that the greatest barrier between our countries is the bond of a common language.
So it’s all in the binding.
And, of the OED and Webster, only one is “morocco-bound“.