Review: The Professor and the Madman

“A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary”

Cover Art

Being a self-proclaimed word nerd, this book initially piqued my interest several months ago when I saw it on the shelves of the ?Books about Books? section of my local booksellers.

I acquired the necessary funds (usually from the dearth of Bookstore Gift Cards I get for Christmas and Birthdays from relatives who know little about me beyond the fact that I read like a fiend), purchased the book, and finally picked it up.

The Professor and the Madman tells the interwoven tale of James Murray, editor for 21 of the nearly 80 years it took to produce the OED, and W.C. Minor, one of the Dictionary?s most productive and most mysterious contributors. Murray sets off to visit the man who has expended so much time and effort and contributed so greatly to the creation of the OED, and is shocked to discover once he reaches what he believes to be Minor?s vast estate that the estate is actually the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, and W.C. Minor is actually an inmate. Though the author, Simon Winchester, goes on to debunk the myth of Murray and Minor?s first meeting, he seems to find no problem in using it as a draw for the first few chapters and in the blurb.

Well, that?s the premise, but there?s not really much more to the story than that, though Winchester manages to pad it out to 230 pages. It?s an interesting story and very well researched, but Winchester seems to touch on things superficially and defer to speculation over hard facts to keep up the intrigue (perhaps a traumatic experience in the U.S. Army during the Civil War was the trigger for Minor?s delusions, maybe he had an affair with the wife of the man he murdered (after the murder, when she visited him at Broadmoor)).

The real shame is that this story is fascinating, for the right audience, but the facts should be able to speak for themselves. One of Winchester?s main problems seems to be that he doesn?t trust his readers enough to let them draw their own conclusions. His style is heavy handed at points, but didn?t bother me overmuch until the end. He spends a good portion of the last chapter and the entire postscript expounding on how tragic the story is. Well, had he conveyed that in the story, that whole treacle-y mess would be unnecessary.

As it stands, the entire thing comes off as mighty self-indulgent: the superficial exploration of schizophrenia (Minor?s most likely modern diagnosis; what is sanity anyway?); the Postscript in which he explains his somewhat cryptic dedication (to Minor?s murder victim. Why not just use his name instead of initials, then?); the Author?s Note; the Acknowledgements (6 pages); suggestions for Further Reading (which recommends books on tangential topics like the American Civil War, and little more about the OED); meet Simon Winchester; a Few of Simon Winchester?s Favorite Words; an excerpt from his forthcoming book (I find these much easier to stomach when it is the author?s style, and not his story, I want to read more of. Anyone can find a good story. Not anyone can write it well.); “Have You Read?” More books by the Author.

You get the idea. How much of this do we need?

Perhaps some of these unnecessary additions are the fault of the publisher trying to boost sales. But when you read some of the sensationalist titles of Winchester?s other books (The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology; Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded), I can?t help but think Winchester was at the very least complicit in all of it.

Amazon tells me Winchester has written a sequel of sorts (The Meaning of Everything: the Creation of the Oxford English Dictionary) that focuses more on the actual Dictionary (the part of this book I found more interesting, anyhow). Perhaps this would be a better choice for the hard-core word nerds that were attracted to this book for the OED?s sake, in the first place.

Final judgment: Interesting, but fluffy. A good beach read for a bibliophile, but borrow it or get from the library. Winchester?s ego doesn?t need the boost a sales spike might give him.

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