The first Oxford English Dictionary, which took 70 years to compile and contained 178 miles of type, aimed to do nothing less than record the history of all words in the English language. Needless to say, such a project was too much for one man, and over the years James Murray — the professor of The Professor and the Madman — enlisted the help of numerous contributors. Among the most prolific was William C. Minor, an American doctor and ex-Civil War soldier incarcerated at Broadmoor, an English insane asylum. A paranoid schizophrenic, Minor had committed a murder years before and ultimately spent almost half a century locked up, with only his books and correspondence with Murray for distraction. Their relationship is ultimately just a tiny footnote in the history of language, but the story is a fascinating one, and the book has a certain old-fashioned sweetness. Think of it as a stocking stuffer for the literary set. B

The Professor and the Madman