‘The Professor and the Madman,’ by Simon Winchester

I bought this one because it’s going to be assigned in a class I’ll be taking later this summer. Since it interested me on its own merit, I thought I’d read it now and get a jump on things.

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester, is a careful examination of the facts of a story that’s become a legend in the literary world. The popular account, first published by an American journalist in 1915, tells how Professor James Murray, chief editor of the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary, wished to meet in person his most valuable volunteer contributor (in those pre-spreadsheet days, the literary citations necessary to trace word meanings through the centuries were gathered by an army of volunteers who combed old books for examples of word use and sent them to Oxford on slips of paper). So he wrote to Dr. William Minor of Crowthorne, Berkshire, asking to visit. Receiving his invitation, he took the train to Crowthorne, and was driven by carriage to a great, walled estate out in the countryside. Ushered inside to an impressive office, he asked the distinguished man behind the desk if he had the honor of addressing Dr. William Minor. The man said he was not. “I am the superintendent of Broadmoor Asylum. Dr. Minor is one of our patients.”

The actual events, which author Winchester documents, are a little less dramatic, but the overall story remains a fascinating one. William Minor was born to missionary parents on the island of Ceylon. He studied medicine, became a surgeon, and served in the American Civil War. Suffering increasing paranoid delusions in the wake of his war experiences, he eventually moved to London (Lambeth), where early one morning he murdered an inoffensive workman with his Colt revolver. His obvious insanity earned him a suite at Broadmoor, where he answered a call for volunteers to help with the massive, multi-volume dictionary.

Simon Winchester is an excellent writer, and the story is a fascinating one for anyone who loves books and words. I have a set of the OED myself (the two-volume micrographic edition, which you have to read with a magnifying glass), and it’s a treasure. Winchester notes that the purpose of the project was different from that of other nations. Unlike the French, for instance, there was no intention to “fix” the language in a definitive, unchangeable form. The OED was designed to trace the history of each English word, and to include all current variations.

The author’s attempt to parallel Murray’s and Minor’s life stories is not entirely successful, in my view. Yes, they were both raised Congregationalists, but in different countries, and their life’s paths were not all that similar. It is suggested that Minor’s childhood Puritanism may have contributed to his breakdown, but that theme is not hammered on too heavily.

All in all, a masterful book about a masterful project. Recommended.

Two Dangers

Randy Boyagoda of Ryerson College talking about Richard John Nauhaus:

What happens when you’re not allowed as a person of faith to speak from your deepest convictions to matters of singular importance in the world around you. Fr. Neuhaus made this case against two groups. One would be secular progressives who would want no place whatsoever for religion in public life. Probably for most of us, these are the groups we would think of as the great challenge to a religiously informed public philosophy. But Fr. Neuhaus actually argued that there was another group that was somewhat just as problematic. For him it was the Moral Majority. In other words, a Christian fundamentalism that had no publicly available account for how religion should matter in politics and public life but instead says, “you need to believe this because we believe this about the Bible.”

‘The Anniversary,’ by Mel Parish


I have to review this book just because it fooled me in a couple ways. It’s not a bad novel, but what stuck with me was the non-plot-related surprises.

First of all, although the story is set in America, it gradually dawned on me as I read that the author had to be English. I noticed, eventually, that double quotation marks were set inside single quotation marks in dialogue, in the English style. Also the author threw in English-isms like “bonnet” for the hood of a car, or “Too right,” as an idiomatic phrase.

The second surprise only came at the end. More on that later.

The story of The Anniversary centers on Paul Rigby, a police detective in a small town. For the past year he has been balanced on the edge of career disaster. He’s approaching the anniversary of the death of his fiancée. He loved her deeply, but learned after she was gone that she’d lied to him and betrayed him. Since then he’s been drinking heavily, getting into fights, and being self-destructive in general. The only thing standing between him and unemployment is his police chief, who has a fatherly fondness for him and has allowed him to live in an apartment above his garage, where he can keep an eye on him.

The plot of the book involves an accountant who’s arrested for embezzlement, but swears he’s innocent. Rigby narrowly avoids going to bed with the man’s wife, and does his best to investigate the case, in between fights and suspensions from duty and getting his ankle in a cast.

The character of Rigby was well-conceived, but went a little too far for my taste. What I mean is, it’s fine to create a damaged personality with lots of anger and pain in him, but so much time was spent on Rigby’s unhappiness that (for me) it slowed the story down and told us more than we cared to know.

Which was all explained when I discovered that the author, Mel Parish, is not a man as I had assumed, but a woman. Usually I can (or think I can) identify a male character written by a female, but Rigby fooled me. What I took for a failure in narrative was in fact just a woman’s point of view. Author Parish did a better than usual job of getting into a man’s head, but (in my opinion) spent too much time in there, describing the exotic furnishings.

Not perfect, but you might enjoy it. Some rough language and mild sex. And some violence, of course.

Could Use A Few Jokes

Lunar ExplosionAs the gods would have it, someone is talking about the fictitious author Neal Stephenson over on The Millions.

In the 1990s, Stephenson looked like the best thing to happen to science fiction since William Gibson blew things open with Neuromancer the previous decade. Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995) tangled with big ideas like the onset of the Web and nanotechnology years before they entered the popular nomenclature and knocked them into dramatic shape with humor and pop-culture savvy. Here’s the famous opening of Snow Crash, establishing the character of one Hiro Protagonist, a master of samurai sword usage, hacking, and near-future high-speed pizza delivery.

Apparently, his novel Seveneves could use a bit more of that lack of seriousness, what with a moon-exploding apocalypse and all.

‘Police at the Funeral,’ by Margery Allingham

I’ve been interested to read one of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion books ever since I saw Peter Davidson’s portrayal on a BBC television series some years back. Books in the series have recently become available for Kindle at low prices, so I bought Police at the Funeral.

Albert Campion, the amateur detective of these books, bears a resemblance to Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey, and it’s not by accident. Campion began as a parody of Lord Peter, but took on a life of his own. Nevertheless, they’re still alike enough to be brothers, except that Campion wears horn rimmed glasses instead of Wimsey’s monocle.

In Police at the Funeral, Campion goes to stay in a great house in Cambridge, at the request of a friend, and of his fiancee who is a lady’s companion there. The resident family is an eccentric and crotchety assortment of elderly siblings and cousins, all constantly quibbling and chafing under the iron rule of a formidable great-aunt. One of the residents has disappeared, and soon his body is discovered, bound with a rope and shot to death.

The story is perfectly a perfectly adequate example of the “cozy” English variety of mystery, but I found it less interesting than I hoped. Perhaps my tastes have been spoiled by the ugly realism of the modern mystery, or perhaps I just compared it unfairly to Dorothy Sayer’s books, which are (in my view) a notch brighter and more interesting.

Not bad, though. I’m sure many of our readers will enjoy it.

A Portrait of Shakespeare Made During His Lifetime?

ShakespeareMark Griffiths, a historian and botanist, was writing a book about English horticulturist John Gerard, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and decided to work out the ciphers and symbols on a famous book of Gerard’s. His study has convinced him that he has found the only known portrait of Shakespeare made during his lifetime. Many clues point in this direction. For example:

A figure four and an arrow head with an E stuck to it. In Elizabethan times, people would have used the Latin word “quater” as a slang term for a four in dice and cards. Put an e on the end and it becomes quatere, which is the infinitive of the Latin verb quatior, meaning shake. Look closely and the four can be seen as a spear.

“It is a very beautiful example of the kind of device that Elizabethans, particularly courtiers, had great fun creating,” said Griffiths.

The discovery was published in Country Life, which apparently is enough to make scholars mock its veracity.

First up, Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham.

“I’m deeply unconvinced,” he said. “I haven’t seen the detailed arguments, but Country Life is certainly not the first publication to make this sort of claim.” (via Prufrock)

Here’s a “Great” Idea

The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks brings us signs with curious punctuation. There’s a sign for a nursing home that people say is “20 minutes from here,” a place with (quote, unquote) parking in the rear, ice cream that’s “homegrown” somehow, and this notice written by someone who doesn’t appear to have any idea what quotation marks are for.

Have you ever seen this kind of thing in the wild? I think I’ve only noticed misplaced apostrophes.

This reminds me of a note I put in the copy room where I once worked. “This is a Lanier copier,” I said. “You cannot ‘Xerox’ on it.”

They loved me for that.

19th St (% Valencia||Guerrero)

Museum of Biblical Art Closing

Museum of Biblical Art

The Museum of Biblical Art in New York will be closing June 14. Founded by the American Bible Society in 1997, the museum needed to find a new venue soon and could not do it.

“I believe that MOBIA contributes a unique element to the cultural landscape of New York and the entire country, and it is with tremendous sorrow that we close our doors,” said Co-Chair of the MOBIA Board of Trustees John Fossum.

Mike Duran states, “It is indeed a tragedy if we can’t acknowledge the Bible and its influence as one of the great sources of modern Western art and culture,” but he wonders “whether the mainstream evangelical perspective of art has created an impassable breach.” Is a secular museum on biblical art an uncomfortable topic for Americans, particular New Yorkers?

The Atlantic answers this way. “The absence of religious context for religious art in American museums was not, as one might assume, a product of the culture wars or a precocious expression of the new atheism. It was actually the result of several hundred years of aesthetic politics.”

They quote Marcus Burk, senior curator at the Hispanic Society of America, saying, “This is just a torpedo at the water-line. It’s an enormous loss to the cultural life of New York and the whole country.”

‘The Stranger,’ by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben is a remarkable writer of thrillers. It has been noted that he avoids profanity in his dialogue, and his use of violence is pretty restrained. Nevertheless he is capable of producing books as shocking as any you will ever read, in their own way. The Stranger is Hitchcockian in its portrayal of a very ordinary man thrust into a world of lies and mortal danger, and raises societal and existential questions as well.

Adam Price is no man of action. An easygoing type, he’s a successful eminent domain lawyer, living in a prosperous New Jersey suburb. He loves his beautiful wife and his two teenage sons. He’s “living the dream,” as one of his friends likes to say.

But, as the author is careful to emphasize, “dream” is precisely the word for their lives. Their security is insecure, their happiness fragile. Adam learns this first hand when a stranger sidles up to him after a youth lacrosse league meeting at the local American Legion, and tells him, “You didn’t have to stay with her.” Then he gives him information to prove that his wife has lied to him about something that matters deeply in their relationship.

It’s not just him who’s receiving such messages, Adam learns in time. There are people who search the internet, ferreting out secrets and blackmailing people, self-righteously believing they’re fighting the good fight against hypocrisy.

And they’re not even the worst ones….

Besides questioning our illusions of security and secrecy in the modern world, The Stranger also raises interesting questions about what they call “hacktivism” nowadays. This book is as relevant as anything you’ll read this year.

It drew me in. It fascinated me. It broke my heart. Highly recommended.

First priorities

I’m late to the game, but I’d like to share some things I was thinking a couple weeks back, when everybody was talking about “Draw Muhammad Day” (is that the acceptable spelling this week? It’s hard to keep track). Chances are you’ve thought similar thoughts, but I haven’t seen the argument framed in exactly the terms I’d wish.

First of all, I’m all for civic courtesy. Going out and purposely insulting somebody’s religion (even if it’s Islam, which I consider a delusion of the devil) is bad taste, bad manners, and bad behavior as a neighbor. As a Christian, I consider it not only unloving but counterproductive for evangelism purposes. I would never do it, if all things were equal.

But there are events and statements that do make all things unequal. Like a planet dropped into a solar system, they change all the orbits and disrupt the orderly functioning of things.

Violence is the most radical of these. When violence is added to the mix, everything is altered.

When somebody declares that they intend to exercise a Murder Veto on the First Amendment, offending them ceases to be a faux pas. It becomes a kind of a duty for everyone who cares about freedom of expression. If you can’t insult the source of the threat yourself, you have to at least support those who will. Even if, under normal circumstances, those people are scuzzballs.

Because constitutional rights are more important than civility. Incivility will not destroy freedom. The threat of violence can.

The Murder Veto must not be tolerated, or we are lost.

Hugh MacLeod and Seth Godin

Artist Hugh MacLeod asked author Seth Godin several questions last month. Here’s one of them.

HM: Back in my advertising days, a “Freelancer” was mostly considered a second class citizen- somebody who didn’t have the chops to hold down a proper, full-time salaried gig with an equally proper, established agency. A mere hired gun, maybe useful in an emergency, but no real lasting value. And here’s you, saying “No” to all that. Here’s you saying, “The reason you’re a freelancer is because it actually allows you to do important work.” Please elaborate.

SG: Think about the people who are truly great. The programmer who can save you months. The cartoonist who draws life-changing images on the backs of business cards. The guitar player who can sit in on a recording session and change everything… These people are first class. They’re in charge. Top of their game. The best of the best. That’s the freelancer each of us is capable of being.

Street Poet

Book Reviews, Creative Culture