24 November 2008

Insanity and dictionaries

From 23 August 2001.

Since I mentioned Winchester in the review of Pessl's book, here's what I wrote about one of Winchester's books a few years ago.

Steve Slosberg and Verne Anderson pointed me at The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester.

They said it was the fascinating story of the relationship between the editor of the original Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray, and an American, Dr. W. C. Minor, who was locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane.

After reading the sometimes fascinating book, I want to caution potential readers about a bit of false advertising.

The story of the relationship was perhaps a medium size article in the New Yorker. Winchester all but ignores the example of another asylum inmate who also contributed to the dictionary. That would have, at least, made an interesting sidebar. Seemingly everything else about the OED's creation and W. C. Minor is plumbed in great depth. Why not this curious coincidence?

The rest of the book's 242 pages was full of (I am tempted to say padded with) trivia about dictionaries and the writing of the OED, speculation on the definitions of insanity, and details of Minor's criminal case, speculation about the causes of his illness, and descriptions of the medical treatment for, what appears at this distance to have been schizophrenia. Some of the details were interesting. But the language seems as Victorian as the dictionary project. And not enough of the details were that interesting to me.

At times Winchester just seems to ramble, enthralled with his own erudition.

  • He goes on about how the OED was a unique project and then proceeds, in page after page, to explain similar projects.
  • He speculates in great detail about how Minor's singularly awful Civil War experiences might have set off the ticking time bomb of his insanity. In the midst of that there is a little essay about the horrors of medical care during the Civil War.
  • Later, he writes a great many pages describing the tropical paradise of Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) and hypothesizing about the effects that culture may have had on Minor, the young child of devout Christian missionaries.

Then, I had to keep asking myself, "How much of this is real?"

Winchester had access to army records, court records, asylum records, and some of James Murray's notes. But none of those could have provided the detailed descriptions Winchester lays out in this book.

So, how much of this docu-drama is speculation? How much is actual fact?

Winchester makes a big deal of the fact that earlier accounts "of the first meeting between Murray and Minor [rely] on the well-known myth…"

But I was never sure how much of the book was myth in the making. There's no bibliography and there are no indications of how much of this story is fabrication.

So, I was disappointed and sometimes bored with the book. Not enough to keep me from finishing it, but I did not like it as much as Verne and Steve seemed to.

If you've read it and want to weigh in on the book, please do. I don't want to discourage you from reading it. You might be captivated by it like many other people.

Another Take on Winchester

A couple issues ago, Dan Conrad wrote about A Common Reader.

It was a book catalog that read like these pages because the book descriptions are written by people who have actually read and liked the books.

I received a copy and found it wonderful. The people at A Common Reader liked The Professor and the Madman much as Steve and Verne did.

Here's what they had to say:

"The monumental Oxford English Dictionary was built upon a foundation of slips of paper -- millions of them, mailed in by volunteer readers who jotted down telling usages of almost half-a-million words.

"Among the most assiduous of those readers was Dr. William Minor, an erudite American word-man whose outstanding contributions soon came to be crucially relied upon by James A. H. Murray, editor-in-chief of the OED. Understandably intrigued, Murray could never have guessed the astounding truth about Dr. Minor -- that he was a long-standing inmate at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, confined there for a murder committed in the grip of a psychosis. This account of Minor's tormented life and his 'scholarship in a padded cell' is in a class by itself -- singular, astonishing, and well-told start to finish."

Another review from BookIdeas.com

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