The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
I have never thought about how the first dictionary was compiled. You couldn't just "command+F" and search for a word in the text; thousands of volunteers had to comb through books to find the first appearance of a word, and give a quote for context. The Oxford English Dictionary describes itself as a "historical dictionary" because "the OED is very different from Dictionaries of current English, in which the focus is on present-day meanings. You’ll still find present-day meanings in the OED, but you’ll also find the history of individual words, and of the language...."
The remarkable story of the making of the first Oxford English Dictionary is told through the lens of two men who contributed greatly to its making: "the Professor," Professor James Murray, the overseeing editor, and "the Madman," Dr. W. C. Minor, who submitted more than 10,000 words. As Simon Winchester writes "The English language was spoken and written— but at the time of Shakespeare it was not defined, not fixed. It was like the air— it was taken for granted, the medium that enveloped and defined all Britons." In order to define the English language, Professor Murray and others set upon a project (that ended up taking over 70 years) to collect definitions, quotations, and earliest appearances of the words.
But the story in Winchester's book is not of the dictionary, but rather, the two men who contributed to its success. The story is wild: an American soldier, Minor, who went insane during the Civil War ended up in a British asylum somehow became the dictionary's greatest contributor?! Winchester goes on interesting tangents to the story, like focusing on the wife of the man that Minor murdered (don't worry, not a spoiler: the murder happens very quickly in the narrative). He also does a good job of putting the tale in perspective with the historical happenings. The last chapter begins:
This has been the story of an American soldier whose involvement in the making of the world’s greatest dictionary was singular, astonishing, memorable, and laudable— and yet at the same time wretchedly sad.