It's the Turn of the Century, the Oxford English Dictionary is shaping up to be the greatest collection of the English language in history, and William Chester Minor, one of the major contributors, is not responding to the celebratory invitations. OED editor James Murray investigates, only to discover that Minor is a committed resident of an insane asylum and the confessed murderer of an innocent man (the result of paranoid delusions). Great mystery story, right? Great psychological fiction with an M. Night Shyamalan twist? Amazingly, no! This is a factual nonfiction account of real events! In short, you can't make this stuff up!
Multi-faceted historical author Simon Winchester discovered this prodigious puzzle of a paragon and a pariah while investigating the history of the OED. Unlike some of his peers he was convinced this would make a fascinating hit of a research tome. He was right! (As was my sister-in-law who saw this title and thought of me! Thanks, Theresa!)
Many modern books of History or Fiction shoot for mass-appeal, damning the torpedoes and flying full steam toward marketability. Winchester on the other hand is more interested in a revolutionary concept known as "the facts." Some textual background (such as the history of lexography and the precedents for the OED's works) becomes paramount in setting the stage for this story. Also vital is the sociological trappings of greater London during the time this took place. It's a tangled web, but the zeitgeist is vital to the understanding of these fortunate accidents.
One uniquely differentiating fact about Winchester's work is that this remarkable "Surprise Ending" is actually dealt with in the first few paragraphs of the book. In fact, it's explained on the very dust jacked to the hard back! This step prevents Winchester from leaning on the conceits of sensationalism and shock value. Instead this is a purely literary work aimed toward those fascinated by mysteries and, in fact, by words, word derivations and etymological archaeology! All others might prefer stories that begin with "This one time... at band camp..." The lack of sensationalism does not make for a lack of surprises. Quite the contrary, there are more twists, turns and shocks in this reality than in the minds of most fiction authors (like Gregory Benford)!
An important note about Dr. William Minor is that he's no Amoral Monster! Rather, he himself is a bit of a victim of a violent and bloody time of primitive medicines and a complete (forgivable) ignorance of paranoid schizophrenia. Minor, an American Civil War surgeon, was progressing into insanity even before the horrors he experienced in the clashes between Union and Rebel troops. By the time he settles into the slums in the outskirts of London he constantly believes he is being molested nightly by criminal fiends from Ireland and abroad. After one such fictional visit his fate is sealed because of a case of mistaken identity!
Never does Winchester allow the reader to forget that Minor is a convicted murderer and that, insane or not, he did take an innocent life. Winchester presents minor for all with all and allows the readers to make their own judgment. Winchester dedicates the book to the memory of Minor's victim George Merrett, though he never deifies nor demonizes Minor (whose brain must have lacked on his most peaceful day the calmness of a Slipknot album)!
Rounding our the major players is James Murray, a learned scholar taking up the duties that no less than the Coleridge family, along with such notables as Dr. Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and many others laid the groundwork for. It was no small or simple task (creating a dictionary is hard work... seventy plus years of hard work in fact), and Murray's career and, in fact, his life is given as much and as exciting a memoir as Minor himself. The professor is a worthy character without whom the OED would either be very different or nonexistent. Many failed where Murray succeeded and students of words everywhere thank him in their way.
Make no mistake though, this isn't a book to fit between "The Best of Betty and Veronica" and some equally simplistic Hillary Clinton offering. There are entire chapters on the tracing of words to their sources, even proving the lexicons Shakespeare must have used. There are no less than fourteen paragraphs on the etymology, arguable definitions and final decisions concerning the single word "Protagonist." Further, the Historical aspects of this work relate accounts of Srilanka, the American Civil War, the history of England (specifically seventeenth and eighteenth century London), and even the paranoia of race relations in both the US and UK. That's all not to mention Winchester's thorough exploration of the variable understandings of psychosis in the changing time Murray and Minor worked in. This is no complaint, as Winchester has created a full and thoroughly researched book. I loved the opening of each chapter with an OED definition of a word summing up the subsequent pages. I love the mixed histories and especially word-detective sleuthing!
But will everyone? I have to say that I think (and in fact, hope) not. Anyone expecting a "gimme" should apply elsewhere. Anyone without a full vocabulary (or at least the desire to expand) should not shoot for this work. However, linguists etymologists and students (particularly those looking for some thrills) should read Winchester, stat!
I have to warn you, The Professor and the Madman contains one of the most detailed and horrifying scenes of the grotesque I have ever read. I winced more here and shifted uncomfortably in my chair more than during any Clive Barker novel! It is true that this wondrous book of etymology and mystery actually gave me nightmares! Be warned, this is no bedtime story for the squeamish!
Four and one half stars for Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary! It's a thoroughly written historical fact mystery that is filled with surprises. The one scene of sensationalism is Winchester's iconoclastic way of telling the truth and breaking a misconception that the press sensationalized! The tabloid-ism isn't his to be sure, and he fixes that wagon but quick! I truly feel that this is worth five stars, but I don't know who all will get this. Many may be confused and even horrified (or bored) by Winchester, but I was thrilled every step. Winchester never fails to balance sympathy with accountability, etymology with mystery, classic psychology with modern psychology and history with future impact. This is a fully researched book for which I have to thank all the contributors, both to this work and to it peerless subject matter.