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The End

In the final few chapters of The Professor and the Madman, author Simon Winchester begins to drop his literary pretension, and the French-derived vocabulary, and his style becomes much more accessible and enjoyable. In fact, the "postscript" and "acknowledgements" sections were a pleasure to read, very casual in style, as though one were having an interesting conversation with a friend. The only word I found myself looking up (and there is a paragraph or two devoted to the phrase "look it up" in the book) was orotund, which, in addition to being readily accessible in most dictionaries, and not being French, is an interesting and possibly useful word to know.

It turns out that Mr. Winchester's use of the unscholarly "it is said," etcetera, was in fact a literary device used to create drama. He later rebuffs the undocumented suppositons. While I should perhaps withdraw my criticism of the author's scholarship, I do have to question his use of the straw man approach to creating dramatic tension. Ill-educated as I am, I do not know a French word or phrase with which to embellish what I would have to call, in common vernacular, a 'cheap shot."

The story itself is fascinating, occasionally disturbing, and in many respects very sad. I do not know what aspects saddened me more: George Merritt's innocent death, Dr. Minor's madness, the idea of being confined in an institution for fifty years, the idea of living to a ripe old age while being both institutionalized and mentally ill (while people in the "outside world" lived short, nasty, brutish lives of hard work, deprivation, sickness, and misery); or the thought of the discarded pile of printing plates, a hundred years of history, toil, research, and suffering, cast aside and destined for the scrap heap. To me there was something woefully sad in that image of a worthless mound of scrap metal. Perhaps the ability to elicit an emotional response over something so decidedly inanimate offers a truer indication of author Winchester's skill as a writer than does his obscurantist vocabulary of Gallic-influenced English.

Finally, the book's dedication page, To G.M., and the author's explanation thereof in the postscript, indicate that, stylistic pretension aside, Simon Winchester is a pretty cool guy. With an annoyingly impressive vocabulary.

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