Monday, 27 February 2012

Simon Winchester - Writer, Traveller, Historian

Simon Winchester is a British-born author, who now resides for the most part in the United States. He is a well-travelled person who has shared his experiences in 22 books over the period from 1976 to the present. His books range from travel-related stories such as my current book, Outposts - Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire to fascinating histories of events and individuals.

Professor and the Madman
 Of the six books of his that I have, I've read four so far and am half way through Outposts. I was first introduced to his writings by my wife when she bought me two of his books for Christmas in 2008. I had never heard of Simon Winchester before but she thought the subject matter might interest me as we are always teasing each other about spelling and definitions. The Professor and the Madman; A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is a fascinating story. While the premise is the making of the first Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which took 70 years to complete, from 1857, this story focusses mainly on one individual, an American Civil War veteran, Dr. W.C. Minor.
The making of the OED was the brain child of Dr. James Murray, who oversaw the project. The actual finding of words and meanings was assisted by over 1,000 contributors from all over the world, who provided words, origins and definitions to Minor and his group.
One of the most prolific contributors was Dr. Minor, a very mysterious contributor. Dr. Murray tried to visit or communicate with most of his contributors but had no luck getting any information from or about Dr. Minor. They maintained a correspondence for over ten years, but finally after having received nearly 10,000 definitions from Dr. Minor, Murray set out to meet him.
He discovered a fascinating individual living at a surprising location. Dr. Minor, an amazing wordsmith, was also a murderer and living in the insane asylum at Broadmoor, England's asylum for criminal lunatics.
So there you have the premise for my introduction to Simon Winchester. The Professor and the Madman, was published in 1998 and is a fascinating story, detailing the lives of two fascinating, obsessed individuals, Dr. James Murray and one of his most prolific contributors to the publication of the first ever OED, Dr. William Chester Minor. My wife hit a home run with this gift; I enjoyed every word of it; the fascinating characters, the enthralling process involved with the making of the OED.

Making the OED
 The other book, of Simon Winchester's which I received that year was on the same topic, The Meaning of Everything; The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester published this book in 2003; it's a bit of a follow-on to the story of Chester Minor. This book doesn't focus on specific individuals, but is a history of the book itself; how it was thought out; how it was approved, funded; the individuals who spent the days, months and years researching and crafting it. It's a fascinating story and of such a great scope and so well-written. The people who worked so hard, spending so many years of their lives dedicated to this book, which benefitted so many people, were dedicated and even, somewhat obsessed. I find it fascinating how many people contributied to it, dedicatdely researching words; their origins, spellings and definitions and sending their research to the crafters of the OED itself, those people who worked hours on end at the Scriptorium near Oxford putting this book together. A fascinating read and highly recommended.

William Smith

I have since purchased a few more Winchester stories and have found them as enjoyable as the first two books. The Map that Changed the World; William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology is one such story. Originally published in 2001, it tells the story or William Smith, a canal digger, who in 1793, discovered that by tracing the placement of fossils, one could follow the layers of rocks clear across England. His discovery enabled him, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the hidden underside of the earth. This is a story of another dedicated individual, a man who spent twenty-two years of his life, travelling across England, piecing together an epochal and beatifully hand-crated map of the Earth. However it is not just a story of a map, but also a tragic story of a man, who was treated poorly, plagiarized, sent to debtor's prison and more. In the tradition of The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester delves into a fascinating individual and his dogged efforts to produce something that changed the way scientists view geography.

Most recently, I have completed The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, Krakatoa. Winchester published this story in 2003. In it he examines the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa and examines its impact on the world, the tsunami which followed and its impact on the world itself. Winchester has a fascinating way of delving into a topic; his discussion on how volcanos are created, the history of Krakatoa and that area of the world; the history of the time. Besides the devastation of the volcono's eruption itself, in which nearly 40,000 people were killed, he explores socio-political impacts, such as the wave of murderous anti-Western militancy that were triggered, one of the first outbreaks of Islamic-inspired killings anywhere. It's a fascinating story, providing a unique perpective of a powerful, world-shattering event. I enjoyed so very much; as I have with any of the Simon Winchester novels I've explored.

The British Empire
 At the moment, I'm about half way through Simon Winchester's Outposts - Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire. Originally published in 1985, this novel chronicles Winchester's efforts to visit the remaining outposts of the British Empire, from the British Indian Ocean Territories (Diego Garcia) through to Pitcairn Islands. I have been thoroughly enjoying this book so far; having visited with Winchester the British Indian Ocean Territory, Tristan, Gibraltar, Ascension Island and St Helena. The story tells of Winchester's voyage to the locations, sometimes incredibly difficult and provides a history of the area and how they are currently being treated by the British government. The locations are often new to me, fascinating areas of the world, often isolated islands in the middle of the ocean. The people he meets are interesting and the locations and their history fascinating. I find that Simon Winchester always presents his stories in such a unique interesting manner. They always have held my attention and have been completely enjoyed.

A Crack in the World
 I have one left to read when I finish Outposts, that being the 2005 book, A Crack in the Edge of the World - America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. As outlined it tells the story of the massive earthquake, a magnitude of 8.25 that rocked San Francisco in the early hours of April 18, 1906. Winchester explores the legendary earthquake and fires that spread horror across San Francisco and northern California as well as the startling impact it had on American history and, as important, on what science has since revealed about the fascinating subterranean processes that caused it.

Sounds like another interesting read. So that is where I am, myself, with my exploration of Simon Winchester's writings. I highly recommend his stories; those that I've experienced I've enjoyed immensely. If you wish to explore all of his novels or in some sort of order, below is a chronological list of his stories. Enjoy!

  • 1975 – In Holy Terror
  • 1976 – American Heartbeat
  • 1983 – Prison Diary: Argentina
  • 1984 – Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain
  • 1985 – Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire (also known as The Sun Never Sets)
  • 1988 – Korea, A Walk Through the Land of Miracles
  • 1991 – Pacific Rising: The Emergence of a New World Culture
  • 1992 – Hong Kong: Here Be Dragons (by Rich Browne, James Marshall and Simon Winchester)
  • 1992 – Pacific Nightmare: How Japan Starts World War III : A Future History (novel)
  • 1995 – Small World: A Global Photographic Project, 1987–94 (by Martin Parr and Simon Winchester)
  • 1996 – The River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze and Back in Chinese Time
  • 1998 – The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Published in the US as The Professor and the Madman)
  • 1999 – The Fracture Zone: A Return To The Balkans
  • 2001 – The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology
  • 2003 – The Meaning of Everything — the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
  • 2003 – Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
  • 2004 – Simon Winchester's Calcutta (a collection of writings about the Indian city, edited with son Rupert)
  • 2005 – A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 
  • 2008 – The Man Who Loved China — the Life of Joseph Needham (title of the UK edition: Bomb, Book & Compass)
  • 2010 – Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
  • 2011 – The Alice Behind Wonderland - Alice Liddell

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