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Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Book: "The Professor and the Madman" by Simon Winchester

Finally, I get around to reading this book. Ten years after its publication..

What has this got to do with Washington, D.C.? A little about St. Elizabeths Hospital is told.

The subtitle is: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Alas! Midway through I discovered it was not documented! Horrors. What have I been wasting my time on? Is the word "Tale" in the subtitle a clue?

Oh sure, there are mentions at the rear of the book about conversations Mr. Winchester had, and the hospital records he read, and the places he visited, and the people he knew, and his Internet searches, and "further readings," but what's to keep a writer from creating fiction from an unusual story and claiming it's non-fiction? I don't know. Seems like a great way to craft a novel and claim it is real. Like that guy on Oprah a couple of years ago.

Mr. Winchester found assistance from the good folks at the National Park Service and the National Archives, etc. etc. But nowhere is found one footnote, one link, one date, one specific reference to any of the information Mr. Winchester used to tell his story. There is no index.

Despite several attempts, the author was not successful trying to pry hospital records from St Elizabeths Hospital about a key character in the book, the "madman," Dr. William C. Minor. Mr. Winchester gloats that he was able to get the files another way via the Internet and says: "It was more than gratifying to be able to telephone St. Elizabeths the next day and tell the unhelpful officials (he had found the records)...They were not best pleased" (sic; he is British). St. Elizabeths is no longer a federal institution but under the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia "a government that has experienced some well-publicized troubles in recent years," he writes.

Makes one wonder about the privacy act, your own medical records, and how they can become public property. Perhaps records of prisoners are not safeguarded as well as those of others .

Mr. Winchester was able to obtain Dr. Minor's records from other medical facilities with no attribution, other than general attribution, made about any of the records (dates, persons, descriptions). Nor are conversations with archivists, historians, a family member of Dr. Minor's, or sources Mr. Winchester used listed, dated or described in detail.

Quite a few pages are taken up with Mr. Winchester's acquaintances and friendships which enabled him to write the story.

The book is so short I thought it must be an abridged edition, but no.

Where are the pictures of the key players and places? Mr. Winchester mentions pictures and papers revealed to him by Dr. Minor's great-great-nephew, but none are included, and there are no citations of the papers used, if they were.

The line drawings which are included are nice and suggestive, reminding me of Nancy Drew mysteries I read long ago. The name of the artist who made the drawings for this book is not included anywhere that I could find.

Am I the first one to raise these questions about lack of documentation and citations? This is hard to believe since many years have passed since it was published.

This book is definitely not worth the time. With more embellishment, what a movie it could be!

Mr. Winchester is a prolific author: Since the publication of The Professor, he's brought out about a book a year, and many more before that.

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