Battlepanda: Random Bookblogging: The Professor and the Madman


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Random Bookblogging: The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
A dear friend recommended this book to me, and sure enough, it was a weird and wonderful tale. I've never really given much thought to where the dictionary came from. It's something that's just there for you, like the streetlights, showing the way and awfully easy to take for granted. Who knew that the Old English Dictionary took almost seventy years to complete? I wonder if such a herculean project would have been undertaken at all without a measure of Victorian irrational exuberance. The dictionary's editor for many decades, and one of the protagonists of Winchester's book, James Murray, had a chronic habit of underestimating the amount of work ahead of him. Optimist to the last, he predicted that the dictionary would be done in another 4 years or so, around his 80th birthday. Alas, he would not live to see his 80th birthday and the first edition of the dictionary would not be published for anther fourteen years.

The work on the dictionary also outlived the other protagonist of Winchester's book -- the mad American army doctor W. C. Minor. His sad and astonishing story occupy the heart of Winchester's book. Delusional, and convinced that he was under attack from fiendish Irishmen, he shot a brewery worker dead and ended up institutionalized in one way or another for the rest of his life, getting progressively madder in the process. Yet somehow he found his life's work with the dictionary, which relied on an army of amateur workers to scour works in the English language for quotations to illustrate the various usages of each and every word in each and every light. Toiling in his cell, Dr. Minor became a most prolific contributor of quotes. He set up his own system of indexing all his books for useful words, and when a request came in for a particular one, he would look it up in his system and pull the very quote required in short order. This was something nobody who did not devote their whole life in this venture could do.

Between Murray and Minor, a decades-long friendship grew. Towards the end of Minor's life, the Murrays lobbied hard to allow him to return to his native U.S. to live under relative ease and freedom and die in peace. It's all a very touching story.

Still, still. One can't help but get the feeling at the end of the book that Simon Winchester must be a skilled writer indeed to have gotten a whole book out of this tale. This is not to suggest that I was ever bored while I read the story. But afterwards, it occured to me that there was actually no real narrative arc. James Murray and W.C. Minor's own stories are related quite compellingly, and their friendship touchingly drawn, but nothing in particular really happens down the decades besides the continual flurry of slips that kept arriving at the scriptorium until Minor's final decline. Winchester retells the pivotal first meeting between Murray and Minor not once, but three times. Two of the times, he related a version of events as it was in the public imagination, which was more dramatic than what really happened. I can't help but feel like this story would have been better served as a chapter in a larger book about the OED rather than something that stood alone. Some of the other characters involved with the OED certainly seems quite colorful in their own right and I would have liked to hear more of their story.