Book 91: The Professor and the Madman



"Defining words properly is a fine and peculiar craft. There are rules—a word (to take a noun as an example) must first be defined according to the class of things to which it belongs (mammal, quadruped), and then differentiated from other members of that class (bovine, female). There must be no words in the definition that are more complicated or less likely to be known than the word being defined. The definition must say what something is, and not what it is not."

Dates read: September 19-22, 2016

Rating: 6/10

Awards/Lists: New York Times Bestseller

The term "mentally ill" gets tossed around all the time in political debates. Whether the mentally ill should be permitted to have access to guns, or how to deal with mental illness among homeless or incarcerated populations. Sometimes it feels like people forget how actually broad the term is: someone who's mentally ill can be anorexic, or depressed, or have uncontrollable compulsions to wash their hands. One in five people will experience an episode of mental illness (usually related to depression or anxiety) throughout their lifetime. I personally have a history of major depressive disorder. To be mentally ill is so much more than being "crazy", and no matter what form it takes, people who are mentally ill are first and foremost, well, people. It's just one facet of who a person is.

Dr. W. C. Minor, whose story is at the center of Simon Winchester's The Professor and The Madman, does have the kind of mental illness that most people think of when they hear the term. From the symptoms that are described in the book, he would most likely today be classified as a paranoid schizophrenic. An intelligent and sophisticated man, he was a surgeon and a member of the Union Army during the Civil War before he moved to the UK and his delusions of being tormented in his sleep led him to fatally shoot an innocent man. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a British asylum for most of the rest of his life. But he didn't stop being an educated man solely by virtue of his condition, and with his endless spare time he got himself involved in a one-of-a-kind project: the Oxford English Dictionary.

Winchester weaves together the tale of Dr. Minor and the history of dictionaries leading up to the creation of the OED. English is a language quite different than many of the other European ones in the way it has grown explosively and liberally borrowed from others, and for quite a long time there was no real attempt to catalog it: a few volumes that sought to define the most unusual words existed, but an actual dictionary of ALL the words with ALL their meanings didn't really happen until the OED. It took decades of work and thousands of volunteers to develop the dictionary, and Minor's contribution thereto was significant indeed...enough to merit a dedication in the finished product even.

Dr. Minor was seriously ill and a criminal at that, but we should know by now that these things do not per se mean that someone is incapable of being a productive member of society. That being said, there is a shock value there: we don't usually think of murderers as the kind of people who wind up knee-deep in dictionary development. Winchester chooses to emphasize Minor's humanity rather than sensationalize his crime, taking us through his life as the son of missionaries in Sri Lanka (there's an odd bit of colonialism where Winchester is weirdly attached to the British name of Ceylon) through the horrors he would have seen as a medical professional in the Civil War and his subsequent mental decline, leading down to his crime and its punishment, and then wrapping up with his long years in institutional care. Even though because of the time in history, that care consisted mostly of a relatively gentle confinement rather than actual treatment, it still should be enough to remind us that there are probably plenty of people in jail or psychiatric hospitals today who do have something to offer the world.

The book itself is solid but not really exceptional in any way. It's an interesting story and well-told, but it wasn't an especially memorable or special read. For non-fiction readers or people interested in dictionary development, it's definitely a good choice, but I don't know that I'd recommend going out of one's way to read it if this sort of thing doesn't usually do it for you.

Tell me, blog friends...how often do you use the dictionary?

One year ago today, I was reading: Yesternight

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