The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

Title: The Professor and the Madman
Author: Simon Winchester
Genre: Nonfiction / history / biography

Rating: 2 / 5

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This book tackles the making of the Oxford English Dictionary through the lens of a sort of dual biography of the titular “professor” and “madman.” It’s an interesting idea, but one that I didn’t feel was suited to the book format. The story of Murray (the longtime director of the OED project) and Minor (a criminally insane prolific contributor to the OED) was just not enough to build a book on. The story was only mildly interesting. I think it would have been better suited to the long essay format.

The subtitle of the book–murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (!!!)–makes it sound so sensational, which I admit was a large part of the appeal. And the most dramatic moments of the story do make pretty engrossing reading; however, most of the pages are filled with things that are not so sensational. This would have been completely permissible if those pages had been filled with “the making of the Oxford English Dictionary,” but sadly this topic got short shrift. Although I do know more about the making of it than I did before, I still had lots of questions. Instead of answering those or getting more into depth of the process of the dictionary–such as different roles it created, how things were actually done in the Scriptorium, challenges it came up against, internal politics, basically the “boring” details–the author chose to focus on Murray’s and Minor’s biographies. They were just not that compelling to me.

I feel that there was another missed opportunity in that one of the main players in the story–W.C. Minor, the “madman”–was actually suffering from mental illness, and it would have been a great opportunity to delve into what that meant at the time, or even more fully what it meant for Minor himself, who happened to be pretty privileged in that he was wealthy, of a high class, and well-respected. Although I got the impression he was treated fairly well in the asylum, the author also says that he received no treatment (therapy, medication, etc.) for his disorder. What was it like for him? What were mental institutions like at the time? What did mental health care look like? What was the dominant ideology of it at the time, and how did people respond to it? How would Minor’s experience have differed from someone of less distinction and more meager means? Instead, near the end of the book, Winchester started saying things that made me uncomfortable, things like, “One must feel a sense of strange gratitude, then, that his treatment was never good enough to divert him from his work.” Really? Because I’m not feeling any gratitude that he suffered from debilitating mental illness for most of his adult life, or that it led him to kill someone. He provided a large amount of quotations, it’s true–“scores of thousands,” according to the author…out of nearly 2 million, though. So the vast majority came from other sources. It’s not as if there weren’t other people available to do the work; it’s not as if the entire project hinged on Minor’s quotations. There’s no need to lament about how strangely grateful we feel for Minor’s misery and the misery he caused others when in the end, we likely would have gotten the exact same dictionary. He did a massive amount of work and he absolutely deserves the credit. However, I feel no gratitude that the dictionary got a ton of free labor out of Minor because he was locked up, anguished, and unstable. I am frankly amazed by Minor’s contribution, that despite–or very possibly because of–his mental illness he was able to accomplish so much. However, I don’t think anyone’s life would have been materially worse if Minor had not been confined to an asylum, had not suffered from paranoid delusions, and had not killed anybody. I think that Minor’s life and those he touched would have actually been better, and everyone else’s life would have been the same. So to read sentences like “He was mad, and for that, we have reason to be glad,” and “The agonies that he must have suffered in those terrible asylum nights have granted us all a benefit, for all time” was a huge turn off. Considering Minor’s condition, it is quite a feat that he was able to make such an impression on such a huge project. But the very slight benefit the dictionary got is not, in my opinion, worth the suffering. Can’t we respect his contribution without being glad about his disorder? Just… ew.

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One thought on “The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

  1. […] novel/comic format, but this one is much less sweet, much more serious/”high brow.” ✧ The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dicti…       This one was kinda meh, despite the author’s effort to make it salacious. Oh […]

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