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Book Review: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (3/5)

2 Jan

I’d seen this title around a few times but I don’t think I’d even read the subtitle before my book club selected it for the January book. It has been a while since I read some nonfiction so I was happy to pick this up at the end of December and enjoy a true story. I read through it faster than I thought I would and really enjoyed it.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

Summary from Goodreads:

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story–a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of the thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions, Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray’s offer was regularly–and mysteriously–refused.

Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane–and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

This was a story I never knew I wanted to know. The process of putting together a dictionary in Murray’s time is astounding. Doing it all by hand and looking up source quotes the way they did is impressive and so time-consuming that it’s no wonder the project took so many years. Minor’s condition is equally fascinating. That a man can appear so educated and calm and suffer from such extreme delusions wasn’t something I’d heard of before. Minor was obviously a very smart man suffering from a very extreme mental illness. Hearing how it was treated was an interesting read as well.

Winchester never tried to tie a personality to the men that he couldn’t derive from letters and medical records. In that way, he attacked this project much like Minor and Murray attached the dictionary project. From that material, he found their personalities and brought it forward. Murray was very studious and Minor, in his own way, was as well.

Minor was fascinating to read about. Having lived in the asylum for so long, there was a lot of background on him and his condition that Winchester was able to draw from. I loved the descriptions of his accommodations. It almost sounded like my ideal study! That tied with the details of his night terrors kept me fascinated.

Murray faced a huge, almost insurmountable challenge in the OED. While I’ve never faced a similarly large task, his determination was something I could relate to. When I’m assigned a work task or school task, I tend to attack it like I’m attacking Mt. Everest. I come up with a plan, pass out assignments, and put my nose to the grindstone until it’s done. Murray’s determination to see the dictionary finished was a strategy I could see myself taking on.

Simon Winchester
Image via Anderson’s Bookshop

If it’s not clear, I enjoyed the account of Minor living in the asylum best. It must have given Winchester a lot of source material because it was so detailed. In contrast, I felt his account of Minor in America and Murray were a bit vague. Especially with the fascinating source material, I thought this section was very well written.

I felt there was a lot less about the writing of the dictionary than I would have liked. Winchester talks briefly about the system or sorting and storing the slips of paper with definitions and quotations and talks about the history of dictionaries quite a bit. With the title of the book, I was hoping for a bit more on how the typesetting and decisions of what words to include were done.

Sometimes, we have to separate a thing from those who created it. There are beautiful buildings that were built or designed by terrible people. Take Disney World for instance. Or Ford Motor Company. These people led lives that would be deplorable to many people who work for or patronize those companies. But we separate them. We have to separate Minor and his illness from the amazing feats he accomplished and the work he did for the OED.

Writer’s Takeaway: There were very well researched parts and parts where Winchester said he was extrapolating based on what he could find. I appreciated this. Sometimes, the extrapolation is where all the fun is and I appreciated seeing what Winchester believed might have happened and knowing that it was a guess. I sometimes wish there was more of this in narrative non-fiction.

The book was enjoyable and fun though still a little dry in spots. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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