Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester (author, narrator)

HarperAudio, ISBN 9780060799694, December 1999 (original publication 1998)

The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the great dictionaries of the world, and certainly the greatest dictionary of the English language. Creating it was a massive undertaking, that took in total seventy years. Armies of people contributed, but one of the most important individual contributors was Dr. William C. Minor, an American doctor, a veteran of the American Civil War. He was educated, cultured, and deeply interested in books and language.

He was also quite seriously insane, and had the leisure to devote the many hours over many years that he gave to work on collecting words, quotations, and dates that in part enabled the editors to create the great dictionary because he was confined in Broadmoor, one of England's asylums for the criminally insane. He had murdered a completely harmless English laborer in the belief that he was one of a gang of entirely imaginary Irish tormentors pursuing him ever since the Civil War.

Minor had been a regular, and very meticulous, contributor and correspondent of the editor, Professor James Murray, for several years when Murray's growing curiosity about Dr. Minor lead ultimately to his learning Minor's story and his first visit to Broadmoor. Minor's story is fascinating. He was truly a cultured, educated, refined, gentle man, except for the awkward fact of being mentally unbalanced to the point of being, in his less lucid periods, a serious threat to the safety of both others and himself. This was also a period when, although care of the insane had grown more humane than in the days of Bedlam, psychiatric care was still, at best, in its infancy. Dr. Minor was confined at Broadmoor but not treated, because the doctors of the time had no treatment to offer him.

Winchester intertwines the story of the dictionary, the life of James Murray, and the life of William Minor into a deeply absorbing and satisfying tale. There's a triumph in the work Minor was able to do in his confinement, along with the heartbreak of his dangerous madness, and his eventual decline in both physical health and the mental faculties he had retained through most of the long period of his madness.

This audio edition also includes an interview with Simon Winchester.

Highly recommended.