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The Professor and the Madman - Simon Winchester

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Genre: Biography / Author: Simon Winchester / Paperback / 288 Pages / Book is published 2005-07 by Harper Perennial

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      20.09.2007 23:00
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      One for the charity bag I think

      ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ is an adage I use often and should have put into practice when buying this book. On first impressions this book is exactly the sort of thing I go for, a sensational topic written about in an accessibly academic way; a perfect combination of seediness and dustiness. I was drawn in by the promises of ‘MURDER’ and ‘INSANITY’ promised on the front cover and the mention of the OED suggested a high standard of prose which always makes these sorts of books more of a pleasure to read. Unfortunately I didn’t make use of my favourite adage and wasted a day or two as a result. ***The Story*** During the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary submissions were accepted from around the world and one man in particular produced over 10,000. When the editor of the OED made the trip to honour this particular individual, he discovered that he was a delusional psychotic who had killed a man. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Of course the author has padded it out a bit with information on the development of the concept of ‘dictionary’, the process of constructing the OED and the life of the two men in question, Professor James Murray (the editor) and Dr Minor (the psychotic asylum inmate); however much of the included information seemed incongruous and at odds with the main story. The author begins with the heavily sensationalised story of the (one) ‘MURDER’ committed by the ‘INSANE’ Dr Minor and follows it with a chapter on the development of the ‘dictionary concept’, much of which reads like an OED entry itself. Ordinarily I would find this section of great interest, but having just read about a murder I wasn’t in the state of mind to read about how many different attempts at dictionary writing there had been. This theme continues throughout as the author contrasts the extreme disturbances of Minor’s life with the relatively unexciting life of Professor Murray, something that does neither of them any favours, sensationalising one and making the other appear less important in contrast. All this with the bare minimum of actual surviving evidence! Yet Simon Winchester does not let this bother him and is able to let us know what both men were actually feeling, in the worst possible way….without letting us see the evidence for ourselves. He states that the ‘sternly worded Victorian ward notes of the day hint that the temper of …{Dr Minor} had somehow started to turn’ (p133), without quoting any of this for us to see and judge for ourselves. We are expected instead to rely on the interpretation of Winchester without questioning. There are no footnotes, endnotes or even a bibliography and there is no way of tracing the thinking that led to these conclusions. As a regular reader of ‘heavy’ history I found this very difficult to accept and I found myself unable to concentrate on the story itself, instead searching Amazon for books that might satisfy my curiosity and interest more reliably. Luckily this book is short, almost indecently so. The total page count is 242 plus a 3 page preface and 3 pages of vomitous praise taken from reviews of the book (plus all the extra adverts and fluff). Not bad, but once you remove 8 full page pen and ink drawings (of dubious merit and adding little to the story), a four page postscript, a four page authors note (again adding little), seven excruciating pages of acknowledgements and four pages of suggested reading (including amusingly a reference to a book that managed to cover this story in just a page and a half!) you aren’t left with much. Especially when you consider that each one of the eleven chapters begins with a large (half page or more) quotation from the OED itself, at which point the book seems little more than a ridiculous pamphlet. There are parts of this book that I did enjoy (once I could get over the lack of references); having an interest in asylums and the general treatment of the mentally ill, segments dealing with Dr. Minor’s life did appeal to me. In addition I became absorbed by the sections on how the OED was actually put together, how the entries were defined and collated and it offered an insight into something that had not entered my sphere of interest before. It was a low jumping off point into a different perception and understanding of other areas of history, and I have added several books to my Amazon wishlist as a result of reading this. But (there is always a but) I felt like I was reading a novel rather than history, that I had been cheated out of what the book’s cover had originally promised and that the author had not done either side of this story justice. Winchester’s enthusiasm for this story comes across clearly, but I resented hugely the implication that we ‘the lowly reader’ had to take his word as gospel. For those of a weak stomach there are some images which some may find disturbing and for those who find the OED less than thrilling (shame on you!) there is much that is literary and ‘dusty’. For those who have a strong stomach and a taste for dust the two stories failed to mesh, even with Winchester’s panting, eager and sensationalist prose. The story overall is fascinating, yes, it does have a redeeming feature: but you have read the story when you finish reading the précis. For those who are interested in the development of the dictionary there is little grist here for your mill and the ghoulish murder hunters will find little to whet their appetite. If you fancy a light read on these subjects this is the one for you, it is nice and light so will fit easily in a handbag, and you can impress all the other commuters on the train or bus….except for those who have actually read the book. ***ISBN and Price*** 0060839783 RRP is £6.95. Amazon.co.uk have it for £6.26 and you can get it from £2.83 from Amazon Marketplace. It gets one star for the story and one star for the prose.

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