I first heard about Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on NPR way back when it was first published in 1998. I was intrigued and made a mental note to read it. The problem was, I never remembered my mental note while at the library or bookstore! Then one day a few weeks ago, Girl of the House picked it off the local library shelf for me because she thought it was the type of book I would like. She was right! It's a curious story about a man whose mind in some aspects had lost all reason and ability to think clearly and in other aspects was as sharp and precise as a surgeon's scalpel. The unreasonable part kept him imprisoned in an asylum for the criminally insane; the sharp and precise part made him one of the two most important volunteer contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary that it had.
The making of the OED in and of itself would be fascinating enough in its own right, but add to it the story of Dr. William Chester Minor, American Army doctor who grew up the son of missionaries in Ceylon and served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and you have a thoroughly compelling and captivating book. The path that led Dr. Minor to madness and murder and then to Dr. James Murray, venerable editor of the OED, has been masterfully reconstructed by the author, who has done his research and then compiled it into a tale all the more engrossing because it actually happened. He portrays Dr. Minor sympathetically without excusing his crime. We feel for Dr. Minor and even admire the manner in which he adapted to life in the asylum and sought personal redemption but understand at the same time that he was a danger to himself and others and could not go free. The only flaw, and it occupies only a few pages, is Winchester's complete faith in the modern psychiatric community's insistence that mental illness is always the result of a chemical brain disorder. He poo-poos the idea of mental illness having any moral or spiritual component, though as I was reading the book I could easily trace the effects of specific instances of Dr. Minor's sin on his life and well-being. I know this isn't a popular stance today and I'm taking a risk in saying it, but we don't do ourselves any favors by pretending that our choices have no effect on our mental state. (I do, by the way, believe that the brain can malfunction just as any organ can; I'm just unwilling to say that there are no other contributing factors. Please don't leave nasty comments. You're free to disagree, but be nice about it. :-) I also don't intend to engage in a debate on the issue.) Oh, one more way the book could have been improved would have been to include photographs. They are sorely lacking, and though there are some drawings, it's hard to believe that photographs of important people and places weren't available.
Winchester's writing is excellent. His organization of the book is almost novel-like. At times I forgot I was reading non-fiction. The story never lags, even during the chapters devoted to the history of English dictionaries and the making of the OED. Perhaps that's because linguistics and etymology are interesting subjects to me, but I don't think that's the only reason. The Professor and the Madman is simply a well-written book.
An update on Oedipus the King ~ Man of the House has been very busy lately, so progress has been slow. I'll keep it up as a current read and write a review when we finish . . . whenever that will be. :-)