As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that the balance of fiction and non-fiction in my reading diet has shifted. When I was in my 20s — even when I was in graduate school — I read eight or nine novels for every book of non-fiction. Now, the ratio is something more like two or three to one. As I’ve been reading more non-fiction, I’ve needed more non-fiction to read of a wide variety of types, topics, and tones. One cannot always be reading Gibbon or Tacitus (at least I can’t).
Simon Winchester’s books fill this need for me. They are essentially works of book-length journalism, often combined with his own travels. His topics — the Oxford English Dictionary, volcanoes and earthquakes, China, cultural geography — are among those that fascinate me endlessly. And his books are always written in a lively, engaging manner that makes them perfect for a Sunday afternoon in front of the fireplace, as well as for reading on the bus on the way to work.
Here are a few of Winchester’s twenty books.
In the early 80s, Winchester walked across South Korea, following a route taken by a group of Dutch sailers who were supposedly the first westerners to visit Korea. He walked from the southern coast to the DMZ in the north, and tries to comes to some sort of understanding of the Korean people and their culture. Though it’s unclear whether he succeeds, but it’s fascinating all the same.
In the period before the building of the Three Gorges dam, Winchester traveled the 3900 mile length of the Yangtze river. Now that the dam is built, Winchester’s travelogue is a picture of a world partially lost under the waters of the massive reservoir it created.
William Smith was an unlikely mapmaker and geologist. He was the orphaned son of a country blacksmith and working as a canal digger when he noticed that the rocks are layered and that their fossils differed. He realized that one could use fossils to trace the rock layers across any large geographical area. After twenty years of traveling around England, he published a huge, handpainted map of the geology of England that changed geology forever. And that’s just the beginning of the story — but you’ll have to read the rest yourself.
On August 27, 1883, the volcanic island of Krakatoa off the coast of Java exploded and annihilated itself. The tsunami created by the eruption killed tens of thousands. Dust stayed in the atmosphere for years cooling temperatures and creating vivid sunsets. The sound of the explosion was heard as far away as Australia and India. An island in Asia blew up, and the world changed in far-reaching ways.
Like Krakatoa, this is another of of Winchester’s cataclysm books. On April 18, 1906, an 8.25 Richter earthquake hit San Francisco, lasted for more than a minute, wrecked 490 city blocks, knocked down more than 25,000 buildings, killed nearly 700 people, and left 250,000 homeless. This is a comprehensive account both of both the earthquake and its aftermath as San Francisco began to rebuild.
The Man Who Loved China (2008)
Winchester’s latest book returns him to Asia; it’s the biography of the Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham and the author of the colossal and magisterial seventeen volume Science and Civilization in China. And all because he fell in love with a visiting Chinese student in 1937 in Cambridge and followed her back to China.
Winchester also wrote two of the best books about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, but I’ve already talked about them in the Lexicography edition of The Reading Life.