Normalcy and Madness
Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman is a model of nonfiction, fascinating, intelligent, and elegantly written, telling the utterly compelling story of Prof. Murray, the editor of the first Oxford English Dictionary, and his friendship with Captain Minor, who was committed to an insane asylum for murder and became one of the most prolific volunteer contributors to the peerless text. It's about a mad life partly redeemed by scholarship. The book also raises serious questions about the lines between normalcy and madness, and the peculiarities of a mind at once so ill and delusional, yet so rigorous. The reader is also given devastating glimpses of the Victorian Lambeth slums, Minor's adolescent lusts in Ceylon, his horrible self-castration, and his increasingly debilitating "monomania" in old age. In contrast, Murray's "character" is overshadowed, but he seems a model of decorum and consideration in his treatment of Minor. But perhaps most astonishing of all is the 70-year heroic undertaking to complete the OED itself. An altogether absorbing read.