I think I’d have to say that I’m a very big fan of Simon Winchester and his books. I’ve mentioned before, but not very often, that most of my reading for a lengthy period of time, say for ten years, from 96 to 06, was non-ficiton. It was a variety of history and biography, a few years studying the Romans, along with who knows what, with writers like John Krakauer and Ross King and Sebastian Junger all in the mix. And out of those that come quickly to mind, all of them writing best-selling non-fiction, Winchester might be my favorite.
I had Winchester’s most recent book, about Cambridge scholar Joseph Needham and his famous history of science in China, on my desk today, hoping to write about it after I finished it last night. (NB: this was all last week sometime, actually, not that it matters.) I found myself introducing Wincester to a colleague, and pitching his books, some of which I have on a shelf in my office. I started with The Meaning of Everything, the story of the Oxford English Dictionary. it’s easy to confuse this with “Caught in the Web of Words, ” by K.M. Elisabeth Murray (1978), which is a biography of James Murray. I read that book years ago, and Meaning of Everything tells more or less the same story, without the biographical emphasis. Winchester is a scholar of scholarship, and that obscure corner is perhaps my favorite genre. But when you’re pitching books to the general populace, Meaning is bit of a tough sell. The next book at hand, The Map That Changed the World, is another great story, but it’s probably even more obscure. I found myself talking about how the big step before Darwin’s publication and an important inspiration for Origin of the Species was Charles Lyell’s work on geology in the 1830s, around the time of the voyage of the Beagle. Map tells the story of William Smith, who took Lyell’s thesis and created an astonishing map of the geology of the British Isles. As I’m explaining this, I’m talking about how the map showed how the landscape was millions of years old, refuting biblical time, well beyond the standard niceties of polite discussion. “I didn’t finish that one,” I say, thinking that I might go back and read the last 100 pages, like I did with the new book last night. Then I mention, as an aside, that Winchester wrote a book on Krakatoa–“you know, the big volcano explosion. I haven’t read that one.” Right now I want to, that one and more.
But I was saving the best for last: The Professor and the Madman. It’s about the same OED guy, Murray, from Caught in the Web and The Meaning of Everything. There were all sorts of random expert contributors to the OED, people working on words at home, sending in examples of usage, doing the grunt work. If you like Samuel Johnson and Boswell’s biography and the story of Johnson composing his dicitonary, reading about the OED is a supplemental feast. So Murray worked with different contributors, and in TP&TM Winchester tells of how he went to visit one of them, and found himself entering a hospital for the criminally insane. Do you want me to ruin the story for you, I asked, ’cause it’s crazy how good it is. No, no, I was told. but TP&TM is a masterful interweaving of the stories of two very different men. It’s amazing. It might be a movie. It was optioned years ago, but it’s one of those things that’s tough to put together.
All of that is preface to Needham and his story and Winchester’s most recent book. (A little research tells me that his next book will be about the Atlantic Ocean.) Winchester is back on familiar ground and telling the story of an incredible feat of scholarship. And if The Meaning of Everything, after the biographical work of Caught in the Web and TP&TM, is really about the dictionary, the OED itself, the new book is more about the scholar than the end product. Needham is a fantastic character and scholar, probably known well enough in his day and in Britain and Cambridge, but he’s certainly obscure enough for the common reader to be entertained by Winchester telling his amazing story. Needham was outstanding as a standard biochemist, the type of scientist who has a phenomenal mind and ability to gather and process information about all sorts of things, about everything, actually, and thus he’s in line with one aspect of Winchester’s previous studies, but it’s the unexpected turn that his takes that makes this a great story.
Needham’s long life crosses the broad span of the 20th century, and thus it has a very different set of values and consciousness and response to world affairs. It occurs to me, using an old habit for analyzing 19th century literature, that Winchester tells the story of a doubled or bifurcated self in TP&TM, that the Madman is something of a Dorian Gray/Jekyll & Hyde mirror image of the masterful Professor, expressing his buried drives and taboos. Needham is a semi-integrated 20th century personality, and he’s not afraid to get his freak on. Needham is the genius who breaks away from the prescribed path, who leaves behind scholarly seclusion and quietude to go out into the world. The heart of Winchester’s story tells how Needham became philosophically and morally comfortable with sex and practiced a relatively relentless pursuit of women. He and his wife, a fellow Cambridge scientist, developed a supportive and seemingly functional open marriage. These things are never simple, and Winchester seems to cover the pertinent details quite adequately and respectfully. The important part is that Needham has a restless, voracious spirit and intellect, and when he’s a young professional scientist and studying everything, he seems to be searching for a true passion. His affair with his graduate assistant and researcher, Lu Gwei-djen, provides the inspiration and the link. Spurred by his love and passion for a Chinese woman, who happens to be a scientist, Needham becomes obsessed with China, and the study of Chinese civilization and science proves to be a worthy subject for his capacious mind.
So the second difference is that China, rather than English literature or British science and scholarship, is Winchester’s true subject here. Perhaps he warmed up to it in his book on Krakatoa, and a look at his past works shows books about Hong Kong and Korea, and most importantly, a book about the Yangtse River. And it should be noted that of course his subject is British scholarship of China, of the way that one man heroically set about studying and interpreting Chinese civilization for Western academic consumption. But the topic here is still a global one no matter how you view it, and it’s rich and valuable and very well done. Needham’s story is fantastic in its own right as an adventure and a portrait of the 20th century, but there’s a larger, more important topic, a timely one coinciding with the Beijing Olympics and the rise of China as a great power. Winchester does a fine job with his own study of China and what it was like when Needham lived there, the way that it changed over the course of the 20th century just as Needham himself was studying its 5000 year history. It’s a wonderful and accessible introduction to Chinese culture and western interaction with it and a clear pathway to further studies and interest in China. Good topic, good book, well done.