Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English DictionaryThe Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this for a book club. With the difficulty I had getting into it, it's for the best that I did, because I would've abandoned it, otherwise. It turned out to have some interesting highlights, though I'd hesitate to recommend it to others.

The story of the Oxford English Dictionary is a varied and complicated one. This focuses mostly on two of the men who made it possible: Professor James Murray, who compiled most of the information that went into the dictionary, and Dr. W.C. Minor, an asylum resident who contributed many of the quotes used to capture the essence or history of words. The majority of the book focuses on Dr. Minor: why he was in an asylum, what he did while he was there, how his contributions helped. Dr. Minor has a combination of free time and access to books that proves essential to the making of this dictionary.

The structure of the tale isn't linear. It jumps around in time, starting with a tale of when Professor Murray and Dr. Minor first met. Only, it turns out, that's a sensationalized account people passed around as the truth. The real story is far less interesting, but you don't learn that until about three quarters of the way into the book.

Though it is true that Dr. Minor wouldn't have had the time to put in all his work on the dictionary without his stay at the asylum, to present it, as this narrative does, as wholly positive is romanticism of mental illness at its worst. If you asked Dr. Minor if he'd rather have contributed nothing and never been plagued by delusions of demons getting into his room through the floor, it's just a guess, but I'm willing to bet he would've chosen mental health. The illness later proves so distracting to Dr. Minor that he's unable to contribute further, anyway. Think what he might have been able to do if inspired to help and given full control over his faculties. Think what he might have accomplished on his own. We've come a long way from locking people up in asylums, but we still have a way to go in our attitudes toward mental health.

The book seems a bit scattershot at times, unsure what it wants to focus on. The dictionary, itself, is rarely discussed except in very dry academic terms, and Murray is barely a footnote. And yet it's not quite a biography of Dr. Minor, because it leaves out a lot of detail that might've shed light on his struggle. It doesn't even offer a psychological diagnosis until the last pages, nor does it touch upon the kind of Victorian psychiatry Dr. Minor would've been subject to. In its place, the book speculates, with little to back it up.

I found this an interesting read. I thought it captured the scope of the project of compiling the first English-language comprehensive dictionary well, and I picked up several interesting tidbits of information. In the end, though, I didn't find it readable enough to recommend others read it, unless they're really interested in the OED.

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