In September of 1998 HarperCollins brought out the American edition of a small book on an esoteric subject: the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The book, by Simon Winchester, had two things going for it. One was a terrific title—The Professor and the Madman, with the subtitle "A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary." The other was the fact that it was simply wonderful, a beautifully written narrative that worked both as a history of lexicography's greatest hit and as a drama. Still, it was not the sort of book anyone would have expected to become a commercial triumph.
It had no celebrity angle—in all of its 242 pages there was not one picture of either Oprah or Martha. It contained no stupendous news, no recent scandal, no gimmicks. It was, as Winchester says, "a book that stands on its own, telling a story about language and the joy of language, and telling this story at some length." It existed only for the purpose of tale-telling, of being read for pleasure—a mild, sober, unsensational pleasure. As we all know, people don't go in for that sort of thing anymore. In Britain, where The Professor and the Madman had been published the previous June, it had made the Times of London best-seller list, but only for a week, and there didn't seem to be any reason that a book about an English dictionary would sell any better in America. Indeed, Winchester's usual American publisher, Henry Holt, had declined to publish it. "They said that this was not a book but a magazine piece," Winchester recalls. "Specifically, they said that this was a piece for The Atlantic Monthly."
On Sunday, March 25, 2001, The Professor and the Madman celebrated its fifty-second week on The New York Times paperback best-seller list. The book had previously enjoyed twenty-seven weeks on the hardcover best-seller list. It has sold 250,000 copies in hardcover, and is currently in its twenty-seventh printing; 440,000 paperback copies have been sold, with nineteen printings. To date, sales worldwide total about 800,000.
Winchester believes that the book's unexpected success—unexpected by Winchester as much as by anyone else—suggests something that book publishers and magazine editors should note. "It shows, I think, that there is deep, deep down—but underserved for a long time—an eagerness for real stories, real narratives, about rich and interesting things," he says. "We—writers, editors—just ignored this, bypassed this. Now we are tapping into it again."
We are. In this issue The Atlantic Monthly offers the first in its new "Centerpiece" series. Centerpieces will appear as quarterly special sections, each one showcasing a long nonfiction narrative. The intention is to build a home in our magazine for the best and most ambitious in nonfiction narrative writing, and the emphasis here is on the word "narrative." Like Winchester, we are betting that our readers feel an eagerness for real stories about rich and interesting things.
As it happens, the first of those stories is by Simon Winchester. It is a further chapter in the long, great narrative of language and the joy of language. More precisely, it is the story of a remarkable polymath and his remarkable invention—an invention, Winchester argues, that had a profound and ultimately lamentable effect on the way we perceive and use language.
As Winchester reports, more than 30 million copies of Peter Mark Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases have been sold since the book was first published, in London, in May of 1852. In the world of the word the thesaurus, like the dictionary, was an epochal event; there is Before Roget and there is After Roget, and the eras are tremendously different.
In Winchester's view, this difference is largely malign, although not purposely so. Roget did not set out with his thesaurus to visit destruction upon a vulnerable language; it was more a sort of accidental catastrophe of being—rather like the European devastation through disease of the natives of the Americas. Roget changed the way we think about words, and this change, Winchester shows, is a great deal more reaching in its effects than we realize. Reaching, he says, and wrecking: Roget made us more or less permanently lazy about language; he taught us, essentially, to elide the distinctions between words, and distinctions are, in the end, what words are all about.
This is an argument that is sure to win critics. Winchester says he is looking forward to being pummeled in the Letters column and to defending himself "in the usual feeble, pathetic way of authors." In the meantime, whether they agree or disagree with his thesis, readers will, I hope, enjoy a real story about a rich and interesting thing.