13 September 2011

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester

Oh wow. I was feeling guilty about not updating, and then I realized I hadn't posted this, which I wrote like 2 weeks ago, and felt really guilty. In my defense, I did just move to Turkey. So I've been kinda busy.

I felt the same way about this book as I do about a lot of non-fiction - it would have been great as a New Yorker article. Yes, it was interesting enough, decently written, and a worthwhile topic, but there really wasn't enough material to sustain my interest for 242 pages. The basic hook - that the OED was compiled from submissions from volunteers, and one of the prime contributors was a dude in an insane asylum - isn't quite as juicy as the author seems to think. I mean, the stuff about how it was compiled is interesting. The lunatic stuff, not all that much. Honestly, I don't find it at all surprising. Think about it. Who else would have the time and drive to do something like that, other than a well-educated loon?

The descriptions of the guy's insanity are interesting enough, but after awhile, they start to seem kind of gratuitous, like theyre being milked for thrills. That's when you really start to feel like the book has run out of steam and the author is just trying to fill pages. It gets wordy and repetitive and just not that good.

Actually, one of the things that I found most interesting - as did the author apparently, because he spends some time on it, even though it's kind of tangential - is what he has to say about the Civil War. He makes this claim that the Civil War was the first war where military technology vastly outstripped medical technology, meaning that people could inflict particularly heinous physical suffering on one another. Now, I don't think he's right about that, entirely. I mean, I'd say that claim probably holds true for pretty much every war leading up to that point - shit, and maybe even since. Think of gunpowder. And land mines. And nuclear fallout. But I do believe that the Civil War may have been somewhat unique in the particular moment medicine was at, namely, where somewhat more complex medical operations were becoming more standard, but there wasn't any kind of advanced technology for anesthesia or pain control. But I am also basically speculating on that, so someone who knows more about history and medicine should correct me.

Anyways, overall, not at all a must read. I actually left my copy on the el, in hopes that it'd find it's way into the hands of someone who enjoyed it, because I didn't feel like giving it to any of my friends.


TB said...

Your review is a bit harsh, and the book deserves better. I read it several years ago and I still have a vivid recollection of it, in part due to his writing style and the way the story is put together.

culture_vulture said...

I'm not being harsh, I'm being honest. I really didn't think it was all that well written or cleverly put together. Like I said - it would have been a fantastic 10 pager. Not an 150-pager.