Book Review: Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester

Any book that contains more than two words per chapter that I’m not familiar with and is written with impeccable syntax, has a very high chance of going on my favorite books list. While this may not be placed too near the top, I very much enjoyed the way it was written. Winchester is an artist with words, and it was very fitting to have such a wide variety of word choice throughout his book that coincide with the subject: the Oxford English Dictionary.

He also achieved the feeling of nineteenth century England, along with the “catch” of the story that many readers feel disgusted about. The author was not trying to mislead his readers, rather, he used a clever method of presenting both stories with tact and taste. This is not the first nor last story that journalists would romanticize. Some details are most certainly invented, especially ones I feel that happened in the first half of the story. Despite this being something of a cross between historical fiction and non-fiction, he had full liberty to do so, due to the nature of that first half. Also, the areas where the author inserted his personal opinions are plainly pointed out by the author. The second half (or third, if you want to be technical about it) dealt more with chronological sequence of events.

Whenever I genuinely like a book, I always have to read the 1-2 star reviews of it. I have to. Maybe I missed something. Since I hardly have anything negative to say about this book, perhaps because I’m partial to the subject matter, I’ll have to share some of the numerous negative reviews about this book. Some say the author and his writing style is pretentious or just plain awful, or that he should have stuck to common words. This would be something called the author’s “style” and “voice.” No comment, make your own. Some say the structure of the story is all wrong and feel betrayed by the issue about the first half of the story. They’re getting the whole story, including the printed news articles about it from that time. Some plot points are repeated. The author did this for emphasis about a certain someone who hardly received any credit or sympathy for his contribution. No substance and no works cited. All the material gathered for this piece is in the author’s acknowledgments at the end of the book. It was an absolute bore. Sure, the subject matter is a little exclusive. If you’re not interested in etymology, the dictionary, the English language, or anything related with linguistics, I wouldn’t recommend it.

This is a book to be read at leisure. Racing through it will not do, and you’ll get bored and frustrated rather quickly. Having a mild interest in linguistics and lexicography would be beneficial. Despite its slow pace, immaculate descriptions and lengthy set-up, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good piece of literature. This book gave me a good sense of what life was like in that time period, the tragedies and realities of medicine and the opinions of psychological disorders during that time. It’s not for everyone, and it’s too bad so many unappreciative people read it just because it was mentioned in the NYT only to gripe about it afterward. At least it was semi-read, for Winchester’s sake!


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