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Customer Review

97 of 103 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and well-researched, but a bit melodramatic, September 14, 2000
This review is from: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary (Paperback)
James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, corresponded with Dr. W.C. Minor for many years; Dr. Minor was one of the most indefatigable contributors to the OED. Minor was committed to an Broadmoor asylum in 1872, having murdered an innocent man. Nowadays we would call him a paranoid schizophrenic; in those days they just called him insane.
In the asylum he had plenty of time to locate and submit thousands of usage slips to the OED, and thus began his relationship with Murray. It is an extraordinary relationship, and Winchester wrings every last drop of melodrama from it--to the point of irritating the reader.
For example, for many years there was a standard tale about the first meeting of Murray and Minor, in which Murray only finds out when he actually arrives at Broadmoor that Dr. Minor is not on the staff, but is an inmate. Winchester opens the book with the phrase "Popular myth has it that . . . " and proceeds to tell the tale; it is an engaging story, and he tells it well. However, halfway through the book he points out that it is false, and has been known to be so for several years. He does eventually give the true version of events, but dangling the attractive lie in front of the reader like this while delaying the less exciting truth is a sign of his weakness for sensationalism.
Another example (p. 195 in the paperback edition): after describing a particular gruesome episode of his madness, Winchester speculates for a whole page about a possible cause for which there is not even a hint of evidence--that Minor had an affair with the wife of the man he murdered. Winchester freely admits this is a complete fabrication, but includes it as "legitimate speculation"; to me, it feels more like tabloid journalism.
There's more of the same, but that's enough examples; I think part of the problem is that there is simply not much material here to work with. The basic facts are few, and Winchester had to embroider and imagine. It must be said, though, that where he *does* relate factual information, as opposed to speculation, the book is fascinating. The story truly is remarkable, and despite the style is very much worth reading. It's just a pity that Winchester felt unable to let the story speak for itself.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 17, 2014 11:22:31 AM PDT
Too harsh a judgement on Winchester.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 24, 2015 6:25:18 AM PST
The analysis is spot-on. Winchester is a gifted writer, but I agree with the "sensationalism" labeling. I was particularly galled to find very near the end of the book that Dr. Murray was well aware of Dr. Minor's affliction early on in their relationship, rather than dwelling in the oft-repeated deception through the book that he remained ignorant of his major contributor's insanity and incarceration. This is a cheap trick to play on the reader, though he begins the book with the vague "popular myth" intro. Winchester also makes several mistakes in describing medical conditions. In the case of Minor's self-mutilation, penotomy is far more frequently done for carcinoma of that organ or severe trauma rather than for a bizarre fish infestation. Frankly, I also found Dr. Murray to be a more sympathetic and interesting figure, as were his marginally saner compatriots in founding the dictionary. The speculation throughout the book about Minor's insanity triggered by his Civil War experiences is highly improbable. Post-traumatic syndrome is certainly all too common, but hardly a progenitor of schizophrenia, and it is important to responsibly differentiate between the two, as the current "American Sniper" trial dramatically demonstrates.
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