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The Professor and the Madman

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As I promised the other day, it has been 17th, 18th, and now 19th century London at The Buddha Diaries... The Professor and the Madman opens on the dark streets of Lambeth in Victorian England, an industrial slum at that time, inhabited by poverty-stricken working-class families -- as well as by an underworld of thieves and whores. An innocent and unsuspecting man on his way to work is shot and killed in the middle of the night. The improbable killer is arrested on the spot, without protest. He proves to be an American army surgeon traumatized by a particularly gruesome episode in the Civil War. It is soon established that the man is what we would call today, I think, a paranoid schizophrenic, plagued by fantasies of evil-doers emerging through the floorboards while he slept, torturing him and subjecting him to vile sexual abuse.

This is the madman, Dr. William Chester Minor, who will now spend the better part of his life imprisoned at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Improbably, again, he becomes one of the most important and prolific contributors to the laborious construction of the Oxford English Dictionary, a monument to the English language whose influence is unrivaled to this day. For years, the source of his contributions remains a mystery to the work's prime mover, Dr. James Murray, a virtually self-educated but vastly knowledgable Scotsman, without whose obsessive devotion this classic collection of ponderous and meaty tomes would likely have never seen the light of day. Eventually they meet, to the Scotsman's astonishment, at Broadmoor, and become fast friends.

The story -- the book's full title is The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- is briskly and elegantly told by Simon Winchester. Its three main characters -- Dr. Minor, Professor Murray, and The Book -- are described with both humor and compassion. We learn the details of the horrifying fantasies of the doctor, and their climax in an act so shocking it is hardly bearable to read. Along with the author, we pity his tortured lie -- and admire his sharp intelligence and his compulsive addiction to the lexicological work. We grieve for both of them, dying before they can see the results of their achievement; and we rejoice that, despite all obstacles, the book is finally published in complete form.

A good read, from start to finish. My one quibble has to do with the psychiatric information and the tentative diagnoses offered toward the end. Given that it is impossible to apply the standards of contemporary psychiatry to a case long closed by the patient's death, Winchester has gathered enough evidence, it seems to me, on which to base a more informed and science-based analysis of his subject's affliction. Otherwise, high marks to this entertaining study of a fascinating piece of literary history.