Books: The Professor and the Madman

If an aspiring writer submitted a book proposal for a novel about an insane war veteran who became an important contributor to a major scholarly project in the field of linguistics, it might be dismissed as too far-fetched for the necessary “suspension of disbelief.” Since The Professor and the Madman is based solidly on historical records, however, no such suspension of disbelief is necessary.

If I had ample money, space, and time for all the books that interest me, I would have bought this one when it first came out. But I decided it was one of those books that would have to wait for me to get it from the library, and there’s quite a list of such books. Somewhere I have a list of the ones that are available at our local library, and I could no doubt expand it a great deal now that it’s so easy to use the online system to borrow books from a much larger area.

As these books are usually nonfiction and nonfiction takes more time and more attention to read (at least for me), I tend to add books to the list faster than I take them off. If I had realized how engaging this book would be, and how quickly I would read it (two days), I would have tackled it a long time ago. The only difficult parts are the entries from the Oxford English Dictionary that introduce each chapter, and I confess that after the first chapter or two I stopped trying to read these entries in their entirety.

I don’t remember ever hearing of the OED until I was in college, and I couldn’t muster any interest in using it once I had seen samples of its entries. Perhaps if I actually sat down with a volume, and casually perused it, I might find fascinating facts about words both familiar and unfamiliar to me. But as it comprises some twelve large volumes in print, it’s not the sort of book you sit down with in a recliner to browse through. And while I like to find information online, I tend to find it either by direct searches or by accident, rarely by browsing.

The making of a dictionary, however, is a subject of interest to me. Winchester devotes a chapter to the history of English dictionaries prior to the creation of the OED, showing clearly how monumental a task it was. The huge number of words in the language, the way English so easily both borrows from other languages and turns its own words into other parts of speech, and the great variability of spelling and pronunciation – all make the task of compiling a dictionary more challenging than it would be in many other languages.

If there were no such thing as a dictionary – as there was not in Shakespeare’s time – how would you go about creating one? How would you compile a list of every word in the language? How would you determine the correct definition of each word, when no authoritative reference book yet existed to say what was the correct meaning?

This was the task for the editor of the OED, and in order to accomplish it he put out an appeal for a huge number of volunteer readers. They would read books, jot down words with an example of how they were used, together with the information on where the word had been found in what edition of what book. Then someone would have to compile all those separate entries to serve as possible citations in the dictionary.

One of those volunteers was a Dr. Minor, who contributed not only a huge number of citations, but whose contributions were among the most useful. He had a great deal of time on his hands, and he was eager to be useful in this grand project. He was well-education and loved books, but his opportunities were severely limited by the fact that he was an inmate in an institution for the criminally insane.

One thing I particularly like about this book is that the Acknowledgements section at the end goes into a fair amount of detail about where Winchester found the information he needed to detail Minor’s life, from his childhood in Ceylon, to the bloody battlefields of the Civil War (where Minor served as a doctor), to the streets of Lambeth (on the outskirts of London) where Minor murdered a man by mistake, thinking it was one of those whom he believed attacked him at night in his rooms, then to the cells at Broadmoor where Minor spent most of the rest of his life.

As mental illness was little understood in Minor’s time, and treatments virtually non-existent, it can’t be said definitively what Minor suffered from or why. Winchester seems to indicate that it was probably what would be called schizophrenia today. He notes that irony that if today’s treatments for schizophrenia were available to Minor, he probably would not have made the important contributions he did to a great literary undertaking.

He might, of course, have made important contributions to the field of medicine. Or he might have just enjoyed his books and his paints (he enjoyed doing watercolors). But instead he lived a rather sad life – relieved for a time by the opportunity to put his time and his love of books to a useful purpose.

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One Response to Books: The Professor and the Madman

  1. mommy says:

    I enjoyed this book very much, too. It is surprising that a subject that seems so dull on the surface could be so interesting.

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