Book Club Reflection: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

18 Jan

My book club met last week to discuss The Professor and the Madman. We usually read at least one nonfiction book per year and I’m glad we picked this one. The subject was one few of us knew about before reading the book so we were all amazed at what we were reading.

Our discussion leader is a library and we meet at a restaurant on the other side of the parking lot from her location. She was able to grab the compact version of the Oxford English Dictionary with her to our meeting. If that’s the compact version, I’d hate to lift the full version! This copy had the text of nine pages printed on each one. It comes with a magnifier so you can read it!

We started off discussing the author, Simon Winchester, in detail. He’s written a lot more than I realized. The title listing at the beginning didn’t cover all his titles. He picked up his pace of publication in the 1970s and this title is twenty years old. His focus seems to be accessible and readable nonfiction. I’ve heard this referred to as narrative nonfiction and these characteristics are the same things I enjoy in Erik Larson’s books. We found it interesting that Winchester dedicated the book to George Merritt. One of the complaints that several members had about the book was that Winchester’s opinions and voice came through strongly. It was clear he sympathized with Minor. He heralded all of the things he was able to accomplish despite his illness and this rubbed some people the wrong way. Minor was a murderer, even if he was ill. He continued to show signs of illusions and even harmed himself. He may have been a genius, but he needed to be in that facility. He wasn’t misunderstood or unrightfully prosecuted, he was ill.

We looked at the book as having three main characters: Minor, Murray, and the dictionary. Murray was a unique man in that he was so dedicated to a single project and didn’t waver for 58 years. He was also very accepting of Minor despite his housing. We wondered how he would be received today. If it was found out someone with schizophrenia had contributed to a project like the OED, would people react more severely now or in the 1800s?

Minor was one of the top contributors to the OED. While many came and went and some seemed in it for the free books, he kept on. A large part of that was the free time he had in his home. He’s very fortunate that he had the money to receive treatment in that facility. His life would have been very different with his condition if he’d been in a different setting. Presently, paranoid schizophrenia like we conjecture Minor suffered from is treated with ‘upper’ and ‘downer’ pills. We wondered how Minor would have lived with modern treatment. Would the pills have hampered his mind and made it impossible for him to contribute to the project like he did?

The dictionary was a truly massive feat. We were impressed that it was not abandoned during the long effort. It made us really think about life before a dictionary. It’s crazy to think that men like Shakespeare wrote without that resource that many of us take for granted. It’s relatively recently that the dictionary was completed so much of human history was lived without such a resource.

Our next selection is one I’ve already read and really didn’t like. I’m interested to see if the discussion sheds any positive light on it.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Book Club Reflection: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester”

  1. whatcathyreadnext January 18, 2018 at 4:24 PM #

    What a fascinating discussion. You clearly belong to a very interesting, intelligent book group. Can’t wait to see if you get won over next time about the book you didn’t like.

    Like

    • Sam January 18, 2018 at 8:06 PM #

      Thank you! This group has made me change my mind a few times before and I’m sure it will again. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: