Monday, July 23, 2012

The Professor & the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor & the Madman by Simon Winchester, subtitled A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, is a sensitive and thoughtful book about the remarkable friendship of James Murray and Dr. W.C. Minor.  The two men, eerily similar in appearance, yet dissimilar in all other respects of their lives, were brought together through their love of words, and their commitment to the making of the OED; Professor Murray as the devoted long-term editor of the massive undertaking, Dr. Minor as the assiduously fastidious contributor of over ten thousand submissions of words, definitions, and provenances.  For over twenty years the two men corresponded without ever meeting.  And when they did finally meet, well, they found that they liked each other, that they respected each other.  And from that first meeting, they would forge a friendship that would last until death separated them. 

I suppose that one of the most remarkable parts to the story is the fact that Dr. Minor made all of his contributions as an inmate at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.  Dr. Minor had been found innocent of committing a murder which he had clearly and undoubtedly committed because he was incapable of telling right from wrong…he was insane.  For the sake of not spoiling the book for potential readers, I will not give details about the murder, nor details regarding the potential reasons for Dr. Minor’s break with reality which led to the murder (genetic predisposition, coupled with the stress of witnessing the atrocities of the Civil War from the front line), but I will go so far as to agree with the author in his assessment that had Dr. Minor been alive today, he would have more than likely been diagnosed with schizophrenia (triggered by post traumatic stress disorder) and would have been prescribed a regimen of medications and psychotherapy to control his delusions.  But then, a medicated Dr. Minor would probably have not been able to contribute the painstaking wealth of information that he was able to contribute in his unmedicated state.  A rather sad catch-22 that sets one to thinking about other great writers, artists, and thinkers who probably suffered similarly.

For me, The Professor & the Madman was an emotional read, the mark of a good writer. Clearly Winchester was as emotionally devoted to telling this story as Murray and Minor were to the completion of the OED (neither men lived to see its final publication).  Winchester came to the telling from a very personally place (read the Author's Note at the back of the book if you doubt me) and did a great deal of research to get the facts right (especially debunking the dramatic myth of the initial meeting between Murray and Minor).  I dare say I was deeply touched by this book.


lauri said...

Oh, now I want to read this. Thanks Carol.

La_Petit_Rouge said...

Lauri, I think you would really enjoy it! I'm going to pass my copy on to Dad...if I have it back by the time you and George come down, I'll share it with you! It is a keeper!