Although the majority of what I read is fiction — I really enjoy Non-Fiction, particularly history, as well. Fiction is a great escapist past time. It has no connection to the real world; it is somewhere I can go, where I can’t be found, to avoid disturbances. However, like the well known saying goes — history is pretty much ALWAYS stranger than fiction. This book is a shining example of the adage. The best fictional plots can’t equal the story told in this historical account. Winchester did an excellent job of not only selecting the topic for his book, but also demonstrates a mastery of both his knowledge of the material and a gift for writing that keeps the reader truly captivated.
If you ever wonder what comes from a generation that has to rely on something other than instant gratification, television, video games and mindless — anti-social engagement with the world around them, the accounting of the events in this book are a great example. Granted, it was the title that drew me in. How can you possibly overlook a title entailing the Oxford dictionary, a well educated professor and a crazy person? The title alone begs the question of what the three could possible have in common that would connect them — thereby opening the door to a read out of curiosity.
One question this book explores is the struggles of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — before it was considered nothing more than shell shock or a shirking of military duties. Dr. Minor is an example of how devastating PTSD can be for an individual. From a successful medical career to an army surgeon in the Civil War — Dr. Minor was exposed to the horrors of war on a massive scale. The trauma left him mentally disconnected from more than the world around him. Causing a descent into depression, trauma and eventually murder, before being confined in an asylum in England, for the criminally insane.
The book demonstrates a real sensitivity for the troubling times of the Civil War and those following. With nothing but his books for solace and comfort — Dr. Minor discovers an advertisement for submissions, for entries into the newly started project of creating a Dictionary of the entire English language. This one advertisement gives Dr. Minor a new purpose in life — and eventually helps him form a bond with Professor Murray — the man in charge of the compilation for entries for the dictionary. The connection between these two men is profound and eventually leads to a friendship that will last the remainder of both of their lives.
Winchester is sensitive in his exploration of not only the unusual friendship formed between these two well educated men — but he also explores a degree of mental illness and how it manifests in different connections and associations in life. I found myself amazed at the intriguing story behind this dictionary that still exists and is used on a daily basis throughout the world. Its lasting legacy a tribute to the two driven men. Winchester revives the men and their history and makes it live.
There are certainly some parts of this book that are beyond graphic. Some of them are pretty disturbing, in the extreme. (Particularly one incident late in the book, which is both horrifying and harrowing.) But when you are dealing with a story revolving around an exceptionally bloody war, murder and a seriously disturbed, unstable mind — it is inevitable that there will be some pretty graphic history. The reader just needs to be aware going in that Winchester doesn’t shy away from these topics — and may even present them in over the top detail.
It is history like this that makes it so fascinating to read. Winchester certainly has a gift for bringing the history into the real world and getting the reader so engrossed that at times it reads more like fiction than history. This is a fascinating read, particularly for readers and lovers of the study of language. The obscure, little known history is both interesting and engrossing and well worth the read.