Jul 28, 2010

The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester

The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester

The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words (also published under the title The Professor and the Madman) is a gripping account of how a man who spent most of his life in a Victorian asylum for the criminally insane came to play a fundamental role in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Simon Winchester tells the story of James Murray, Chief Editor of the OED for most of time it took to complete, and of Dr. W.C. Minor, an American army surgeon who fought in the Civil War but spent most of his life in England at Broadmoor Asylum (interesting bit of trivia: there he befriended Richard Dadd, a fellow inmate and the author of the lovely and unsettling painting “The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke”).

Dr. Minor suffered from what would most likely be diagnosed as schizophrenia today, and he was sent to Broadmoor after he shot and killed a man as a result of one of his paranoid delusions. These delusions would not leave him for the rest of his life – even while at Broadmoor, Minor persistently believed that he was kidnapped every night and forced to perform “lewd acts”, and that someone was trying to poison him and destroy his property. But despite his mental illness, Minor was an intelligent and educated man. Language and literature were among his main passions, and when he saw one of the ads James Murray and his team put out asking for volunteers to provide literary quotations to be included in the dictionary, he was delighted to help. Minor became one of the OED’s main volunteer contributors, and for many years he exchanged letters with Murray without the latter having any idea that he was an inmate at an asylum.

The Surgeon of Crowthorne was a great follow-up to The Secret Life of Words, especially because etymology was such an important part of the OED.I also very much enjoyed the chapters about the history of dictionary-making – and if this sounds like a topic that would be dry to non-language nerds, believe me, Winchester makes it interesting. It was fascinating to read about the evolution from prescriptive lexicography (with early dictionaries being lists of words deemed “worthy” of being included by a few representatives of the intellectual elite) to lexicography as we know it today. An ideal dictionary – and the OED is probably as close to that as it gets – includes all words, and defines them as simply and succinctly as possible. And as I learned in my lexicography class a few years ago, writing definitions is very definitely no easy task.

Another interesting aspect of the book were the sections on Victorian asylums and on nineteenth-century versus contemporary conceptions of madness. The Victorian asylum system was very far from ideal, but for most of his life Minor actually lived rather comfortably (he even had his own library at Broadmoor) and without endangering himself or others – if we leave the episode where he performs a, shall we say, unforgettable act of self-mutilation aside, that is. Of course, Minor’s social and economic privilege was a big part of the reason why he was allowed such a comfortable existence at the asylum. Also, unlike a modern patient, Minor wasn’t medicated, and though this no doubt lessened his quality of life, it was also behind the fervour with which he worked for the OED. If not for his condition, he probably wouldn’t have performed a task so colossal with so much tireless enthusiasm.

The Surgeon of Crowthorne was a very enjoyable read, and it made both my inner language geek and my not-so-inner lover of all things Victorian very very happy. Simon Winchester clearly has a talent for storytelling, and he makes Minor’s story almost as enthralling and suspenseful as a novel. However, there were moments where I couldn’t help but feel extremely annoyed and alienated by his tone, and if I had been in a grumpier sort of mood this might very well have ruined the book for me altogether.

I suppose this is a case of what Jenny recently called disagreeing with people you agree with. See, Simon Winchester really, really loves the Oxford English Dictionary. I understand: I agree that it’s an impressive work, and I’ve actually sat at the library and read through parts of it just for fun. (And I bet some of you have too). But Winchester loves it so much so that he tends to get extremely defensive when confronted with what he perceives as any unfair criticism of its worth – including commentary on the racism, sexism and imperial worldview it reflects. I actually do agree with Winchester that this doesn’t necessarily take away from the overall value of the dictionary, and as a lover of Victorian literature, I’m quite used to loving books that I also very much object to ideologically. Plus I’m not a fan of the idea of historical revisionism (i.e., editing the disagreeable bits out of older works), which I think equals rewriting the past and pretending it never happened – though I do think it’s unfair to pretend that a reference book and a work of fiction are the same when it comes to this. But anyway, I don’t want to do that – I’d much rather acknowledge these things and try to talk about them.

Winchester, however, goes a little further than objecting to revisionism: he’s not only extremely dismissive, but he attempts to deride those who even dare to start conversations about the Victorian worldview contained in the OED – which, as much as Mr Winchester squirms, is in fact very Victorianly sexist, racist, and imperialist. For example, he’ll offhandedly say things like, “modern scholars grumble about what they see as the sexism and racism of the work, its fussily outdated imperial attitude”. Really? They “grumble” about what they “see as”? Really, Mr Winchester?

Or even more tellingly: “There is some occasional carping that the work reflects an elitist, male, British and Victorian tone”. Clearly he’s trying to ridicule anyone who attempts to have conversation about these things. The choice of the verb “to carp” (or “wail”, which he also uses further on) is of course not accidental – it’s meant to paint those he disagrees with as whiny, childish, ridiculous, and not worthy of being taken seriously. His goal here is to take a stab at those annoying “oversensitive” people who are obsessed with “political correctness”; at people like me, pretty much. His carefully chosen verbs are a say of saying, “Oh, shut up. Nobody cares.” He’s more than free to think that these things aren’t worthy of consideration, of course. But I resent the fact that he can barely contain his bile, and that he resorts to ridicule to attempt to silence those he disagrees with.

Most disappoint of all is the fact that he’s doing here is really arguing with a strawman. Those who “carp”, “grumble” and “wail” don’t necessarily advocate historical revisionism or wish to burn the OED in an auto-da-fé. Unfortunately this is an attitude I come across often: it always saddens me when people immediately assume that anyone who tries to discuss the sexism or racism of older works must have censorship or moral righteousness in mind, or must be ignorant of and unwilling to consider their historical context. Personally I like to discuss these things, and I like it because I think there’s a lot to be gained from such conversations, and a lot to be learned about past and present alike. I really don’t mind that Simon Winchester doesn’t discuss this at length in relation to the OED, as an in-depth examination would clearly be beyond the scope of The Surgeon of Crowthorne. But what a pity that the few comments he did make were so venomous and belittling.

I’ll end this by saying again that I did very much enjoy this book, and that I learned plenty of fascinating facts from it. If I’m being repetitive, it’s because I suspect that I have a hard time making my posts as balanced as I mean them to be, especially when they’re about books I enjoyed except for one particular thing. That was the case with The Surgeon of Crowthorne, and if I went on at length about my one objection, it’s only because I think it’s important, and because I wanted to make sure I was explaining myself properly. But my annoyance with Winchester’s tone is certainly not the only thing I took away from this book.

Interesting bits:
Here was an inescapable irony of the Civil War, not known in any conflict between men before or since: the fact that this was a war fought with new and highly effective weapons, machines for the mowing-down of men, but at a time when an era of poor and primitive medicine was just coming to an end. It was fought with the mortar and the musket and the Minié ball, though not with anaesthesia and sulphonamides or penicillin. The common soldier was thus in a poorer position than any time before or after: he could be monstrously ill treated by the new weaponry, and yet only moderately well treated with all the old medicine.

But his [Dr. Trent’s] underlying theme was profoundly simple: it was an essential credo for any future dictionary-maker, he said, to realise that a dictionary was simply ‘an inventory of the language’. It was decidedly not a guide to proper usage. Its assemblers had no business selecting words for inclusion, on the basis of whether they were good or bad. Yet all of the craft’s early practitioners, Samuel Johnson included, had been guilty of doing just that. The lexicographer, Trench pointed out, was ‘an historian… not a critic.’ It was not in the remit of one dictator – ‘or forty,’ he added, with a cheeky nod to Paris – to determine what words should be used, and what should not. A dictionary should be a record of all words that enjoy any recognisable life span in the standard language.

Defining words properly is a fine and peculiar craft. There are rules – a word (to take a noun as an example) must first be defined according to the class of things to which it belongs (mammal, quadruped), and then differentiated from other members of that class (bovine, female). There must be no words in the definition that are more complicated or less likely to be known than the word being defined. The definition must say what something is and not what it is not. If there is a range of meanings of any one word – cow having a broad range of meanings, cower having essentially only one – then they must be stated. And all the words in the definition must be found elsewhere in the dictionary – a reader must never happen upon a word that he cannot discover elsewhere in the same book. Contrive to follow all these rules, and stir into the mix an ever pressing need for concision and elegant – and if the craftsman is true to his task a proper definition will probably result.
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  1. I've had this for years and tried to read it several times and just couldn't get into it. I love the language connection, but the Victorian era is simply not for me so I think that's why.

  2. I've heard about this book and while I still think it's interesting, I'm worried that act of mutilation will squick me out. Is it to do with his genitals? The lewd act delusions makes me think it is and I'd probably like to know so I can skip that bit when they start talking about it.

    Was he in an asylum for the rich then if he had his own library?

  3. I'm glad you liked this! I thought it was so interesting how Minor was in an asylum but still had so many privileges and contributed so much to the dictionary. I hadn't remembered Winchester's comments on the sexism but wow, odd!

  4. I really enjoyed this book, it was so interesting! But I don't remember him discussing sexism,although I do recall he had some pretty heated opinions about the dictionary. I just thought wow, this guy is really impassioned about a dictionary!

  5. I read the earlier edition of this book in college and was enthralled by it. Parts read almost as much like a psychological thriller as they do a study of the OED.

  6. I looked at the cover and gee, why does this look eerily familiar to one of my books until I read the first paragraph and realized that my copy is The Professor and the Madman :)

    I'm looking forward to reading this sometime in the future :)

  7. This does sound fascinating. I think what's kind of sad is that we haven't made all the much progress in the treatment of mental illness.

  8. I read this a couple of years ago and really thought it was a smashing read. It was so interesting to discover all the aspects of Winchester's illness and also his amazing contribution to language. So glad to hear that you liked it too!

  9. I read this a couple of years ago and really thought it was a smashing read. It was so interesting to discover all the aspects of Winchester's illness and also his amazing contribution to language. So glad to hear that you liked it too!

  10. I read this book while sick on vacation years ago, so I have to admit that not much stuck with me. Perhaps a re-read is in order.

  11. Interesting! I've never heard of him before.

  12. I loved both this, and Winchester's other book about the history of the OED. I didn't particularly notice the dismissiveness you point out, but I have to admit that I'm such a sucker about the OED - my family & I would cluster around our condensed version when I was little, finding out all about the etymologies and historical usages of words. So I have more than a bit of that early-life affection for it built in - you know, how one loves things unquestioningly when one is little, and often continues loving them despite political issues that might come up later. I actually got teary-eyed reading Winchester's other OED history! True confession. Anyway, glad you liked this overall; I found it fascinating!

  13. As usual, I simply adored reading your review, Ana! This, for instance, left me grinning ear-to-ear: ...it made both my inner language geek and my not-so-inner lover of all things Victorian very very happy.

    If it makes you feel any better, I could definitely tell how much you enjoyed the book "despite." It really is hard to express that sort of experience with book, but you managed marvelously!

  14. what a wonderful review! i have had this book for years and not read it. i think it is time...

  15. I read this quite a while back and luckily I read for a book group discussion. My book club at that time had quite a few English teachers so you can only imagine how excited they were to talk about the dictionary :)

  16. Ooh ooh ooh! I had to read this one as an undergraduate, and I couldn't imagine at the time that it would be interesting. It was fascinating!!! I've always meant to read more of Winchester's stuff, but I've never gotten around to it.

  17. I remember Winchester doing this, and I am just trying to remember whether he did the same thing in The Meaning of Everything (his book all about the OED), or lightened up a little by then. I can't remember! All I can think of are silly things like that Frederick Furnivall was who the Water Rat in Wind in the Willows was based on.

    I confess that when an author is dismissive like this by way of defending a person or institution that s/he has an obvious crush on, I am slightly more forgiving (especially if I too have sort of a crush on that person or institution) than I might otherwise be. Because I can sympathize. I know perfectly well that Oscar Wilde had faults, but when someone else suggests that he did, and it's not clear to me that their suggestion comes from a place of love for Oscar Wilde, I get super defensive. Of course I am not writing a book about him, but still, I can understand the instinct.

  18. I've heard so much about this book without ever actually a) seeing it in a bookstore in the UK or b) finding the motivation to order it. The author wrote an essay in the writers' and artists' yearbook about his daily practice in writing non-fiction and he intimidated me. Apparently, he decides how many words he has to write, then counts backwards, assigning 1,000 words to each day, so he knows when to begin writing. This would just never work for me - life would instantly get in the way and destroy my schedule. Every time I hear his name mentioned, I think of him writing his 1,000 words a day and get stuck on that thought.

    It is funny how defensiveness comes over all wrong in non-fiction, isn't it? LIke self-pity, there are some emotions that stories just can't carry without being soured by them.

    And just to say, you DO write beautiful reviews, Nymeth. A perfect mix of analysis and personal response.

  19. For a moment I was all excited, I thought Winchester had a new book out. Then I realized it was just a different title. :-(

  20. I read this several years ago, and I'm surprised I didn't notice Winchester's defense of the sexism and racism. I remember rather liking it but not much else stuck with me.

    And by the way, I've given you a Versatile Blogger award! If you have time stop by my blog and take a look.

  21. Joanna: Yeah, I can see how that would make this a bit difficult to enjoy :P

    Jodie: Yep... it is :S The asylum itself wasn't just for the rich, but the fact that he had a private income and was an army veteran made it possible for him to be given two rooms, one of which he converted into a library. He also used his income to hire another inmate to be his servant, so money did open a lot of doors for him.

    Amy: Call me horribly cynical, but his dismissive tone really didn't surprise me :S

    Jeane: Yeah, he certainly has strong opinions and IS passionate about the OED. I appreciate his enthusiasm; I just wish he'd been a little less defensive.

    Loren Eaton: It does read like a psychological thriller!

    Lightheaded: It seems that that title is quite a bit more popular :P Anyway, I hope you'll enjoy it!

    Kathy: I know :\ And in some ways, things might be worse, what with the abuse of medication these days. I'm not saying medication can't be helpful, of course, but it shouldn't replace other ways of helping people lead more well-adjusted lives.

    Zibilee: It was incredibly interesting, yes! Have you read any of his other books?

    Trisha: If you do pick it up again, I hope you'll enjoy it more the second time around.

    Ladytink: Apparently he has quite a few books out, and they all sound so interesting!

    Emily: I did appreciate Winchester's passion for the OED, and I agree, it's an impressive piece of work! There's something very Victorian about the whole undertaking, and I mean this in the best possible way. It doesn't really bother me that the less pleasant aspects of the era also made their way into the dictionary, nor that people love it regardless. But what bothered me was that he picked such loaded verbs. It's like he didn't think it was at all possible to love it and still want to have a conversation about the politics of it all. Anyway, this WAS a great read overall, and I'll keep an eye out for his history of the OED!

    Debi: Thank you so much! That's a relief to hear :)

    Priya Pamar, I hope you enjoy it when you finally get to it :)

    Iliana: I can imagine, yes!

    Andi: I need to read more of his stuff too! His travel books in particular sound fascinating.

    She: Isn't it? I've always been a huge fan of it, and I was ridiculously excited when Dadd was mentioned on this book :P

    Jenny: Remind me to never ever say anything bad about Oscar Wilde in front of you :P (Not that I'd *have* anything bad to say!). I understand his passion for the OED, and also that he just didn't want to talk about the Victorianness of the dictionary's worldview in this book. Which IS fair enough, as it's his book, after all. But I wish he hadn't said anything at all instead of carefully picking the most demeaning verbs he could think of to take stabs at people :P

    Litlove: The idea of writing 1000 words a day IS very intimidating! And yes, defensiveness very rarely works in non-fiction, no matter how right the author might be. Finally, thank you so much for the kind words! And thank you again for starting such a great discussion. I've so been enjoying reading everyone's thoughts on this whole writing about books thing.

    Jill, sorry for the false hopes :(

    Karen: It's not so much that he defends it, it's more that he gets all "La la la I CAN'T HEAR YOU" if someone even tried to talk about it, which is a pity as there ARE interesting conversations to be had on the matter. Also, thank you so much! :D

  22. I've seen this book around since it came out but it looked so ... stuffy! It didn't visually appeal to me at all. Now I'm confused over whether I want to read it or not! The first half of your review, I was thinking Wow this sounds great! And then... and then... I feel a bit bombarded with the author's sentiments without completely understanding the context. Where do the quotes by Winchester come from? Does he include an essay-like rant in his book or was it on a website?

  23. Shannon: The quotes are all from the book itself (normally everything I include in a review is; if not I'll say so). I apologise for not giving more context, but the truth is that they DO come a bit out of nowhere in the book itself! Like, he'll be talking about how great the OED and then he'll drop one of those really defensive one-liners. But I definitely do recommend the book regardless.

  24. I stand in awe of the OED and the work and amount of time that was put into its creation. And I was totally engrossed in Winchester's book; I almost felt like I was reading a work of fiction sometimes because it was so entertaining to me. I borrowed the copy I read and ever since I returned it I've wnated to read it again. Looks like I need to just go buy a copy. And read his other book. I didn't know about the alternate title, so that was a nice tidbit!

  25. I read this one several years ago and found it fascinating (pre-blogging). Actually, I loaned it to a friend and am quite peeved that I never received it back from her.

    I'm currently reading Mr. Whicher (I know, FINALLY!) and am reminded why I enjoy books like this one or The Devil in the White City--just all of the little tidbits of information. I loved learning about the asylums of the Victorian era and found it fascinating how the OED was written.

    Interesting about the title differences?!

  26. Wonderful review, Ana! I have had this book on my 'To be read' list for years now. Maybe I should read it now :) I met Simon Winchester at a book club meeting and later at a literary festival a few years back and at that time he talked about this book and about a few other things - he is quite an entertaining speaker. When I read about how you felt about Simon Winchester's tone, I remembered his talk - at that time I had felt that he had strong opinions and so I could understand how you felt about the tone he has adopted in his book.

  27. Terri B: It does read a bit like a novel, doesn't it? Like Loren Eaton said about, like a psychological thriller.

    Trish: I wonder why they changed the title! Both seem to work well, actually, and I can't imagine the reason :P And yes, as I was telling you on twitter I love this kind of non-fiction too.

    Vishy: He's certainly opinionated, yes! That's so cool that you got to hear him speak. I suspect that his tone might come across better in speaking than it does in writing, with his voice and expression to soften the defensiveness.

  28. Every time I see this book (under the other title), I pick it up, finger it a bit, and then set it back down. I am not sure why, but I think it has to do with the number of books already on my shelf relating to words and language and history and the like... none of which I've yet picked up. Hopefully I'll pick one up soon and then actually get my hands on this one long-term :-)

  29. I'm quite a fan of the OED, and so I enjoyed this one. Here's my review:



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