The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
I've been enthralled by the idea of the Oxford English Dictionary since I first encountered it in an undergraduate course about the history of the English language, and I figured that Winchester's account of two of its pivotal figures would be a nice way to learn a bit more about its remarkable history. While Winchester avoids the pitfalls that plague dry historical nonfiction (of both the popular and more academic varieties), The Professor and the Madman swings a bit too far in the other direction, coming across as impossibly disorganized despite its obviously good intentions and its ostensible focus on the quintessentially Victorian impulse to categorize (and thus make sense of) the world. The author's effort to interweave stories about editor extraordinaire James Murray, institutionalized power contributor William C. Minor, and the dictionary itself is a noble one, but the book and its readers become repeatedly lost in a seemingly endless stream of internal and external distractions.
Winchester seems to be an inherently capable writer, sticking to accessible (but refreshingly not condescending) prose even when halfheartedly posing existential questions and resorting to misplaced melodrama. It is, rather, the book's fundamental narrative incoherence that makes for a difficult and dissatisfying reading experience. Rambling asides range from obviously relevant and enlightening (the history of English-language dictionaries) to tangential, but potentially interesting (the history of schizophrenia as a psychological diagnosis) and, unfortunately, incidental and unnecessary (Irish participation in the American Civil War and possible post-Emancipation disillusionment with the Cause). Together, these diversions seem intended to pad an already slim volume instead of enhancing the story or providing meaningful historical context. Combined with a narrative structure that is fragmented at best and baffling grammatical errors as simple as mid-paragraph tense changes that render the surrounding text nearly incomprehensible, they contribute to the book's pervading sense of sloppiness.
The problems proliferate in the plot, such as it is. The book opens, predictably but reasonably enough, with a compelling anecdote that the surrounding stories can build up to and upon, but Winchester relates the same incident almost verbatim in a later chapter, only to immediately discredit it in favor of a more historically accurate version of events. I found the effect to be uncharacteristically condescending and almost infuriating in its pretension; moreover, why waste readers' time? The book shifts incessantly backward and forward in time and between plots concerning Murray, Minor, supporting characters (some of whom clearly don't deserve as much attention as they receive), and the dictionary itself, to the point where it has more conflicting and overlapping timelines than many time-travel stories I've encountered. I certainly don't believe that it is necessarily imperative to present a historically minded narrative in strictly chronological order, but the constant whiplash makes crucial cause-and-effect relationships and historical context nearly impossible to construct, understand, or follow: the book becomes a kind of postmodern jumble, isolated from meaning.
Winchester clearly has some good instincts, and it is possible to imagine the foundations of an intriguing historical tale herein, as haphazard as the book can seem. The deployment of well-chosen, straight-outta-OED definitions as the front matter for each individual chapter is effective and charming, and those portions of the book that do concentrate on coherent narratives are usually interesting and often well-told, at least until they inevitably veer into tangential territory. Both Minor and the dictionary itself prove to be compelling in their own right, and Murray provides a nice and necessary link between them. As Winchester's occasional existential, yet shallow, digressions prove, Minor's story is rife with opportunities to consider some very interesting existential questions, such as the morality of celebrating unmistakably positive events that occurred only because of a senseless murder. But the book, as it stands, is unforgivably clumsy and ultimately unrewarding, down to the marooned illustrations that the author and designer don't bother to caption or otherwise explain. Despite an interesting premise with plenty of potential, The Professor and the Madman instead conjures an ironic kind of chaos out of a story that is inescapably immersed in the history of efforts to codify and organize the world.