Born September 28, 1944, in London, England; married first wife, Judy, 1966 (divorced); married second wife, 1989 (divorced, 1997); children: (first marriage) three sons, one daughter. Education: St. Catherine's College, Oxford, M.A., 1966. Religion: Church of England (Anglican).
Writer and journalist. Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, reporter, 1967-70; Guardian, Manchester, England, correspondent in Northern Ireland, 1970-72, in Washington, DC, 1972-76, and in New Delhi, India, 1977-79; Daily Mail, London, England, chief U.S. correspondent in Washington, DC, 1979-80; Sunday Times, London, England, senior feature writer, 1981m—. San Jose State University, San Jose, CA, Lurie Professor, 2004.
Journalist of the Year award (England); AAPG Journalism Award.
In Holy Terror: Reporting the Ulster Troubles, Faber (London, England), 1974, published as Northern Ireland in Crisis: Reporting the Ulster Troubles, Holmes & Meier (New York, NY), 1975.
American Heartbeat: Notes from a Midwestern Journey, Faber (London, England), 1976.
Their Noble Lordships: The Hereditary Peerage Today, Faber (London, England), 1981, published as Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain, Random House (New York, NY), 1982.
Prison Diary, Argentina, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1983.
The Sun Never Sets: Travels to the Remaining Outposts of the British Empire, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1985, published as Outposts, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1985, revised edition published as Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire, Perennial (New York, NY), 2004.
Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1991.
Pacific Rising: The Emergence of a New World Culture, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1991, published as The Pacific, Hutchinson (London, England), 1991.
The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans, Harper-Collins (New York, NY), 1991.
Hong Kong: Here Be Dragons, Stewart, Tabori & Chang (New York, NY), 1992.
Pacific Nightmare: How Japan Starts World War III: A Future History, Carol (New York, NY), 1992.
(With Martin Parr) Small World, Dewi Lewis (Stock-port, England), 1995.
The River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze and Back in Chinese Time, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998, published as The Surgeon of Crowthorne, Viking (London, England), 1998.
The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.
The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2003.
(With Rupert Winchester) Simon Winchester's Calcutta, Lonely Planet (Berkeley, CA), 2004.
A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributing editor of Harper's. Author of introduction to A Dictionary of Modern Usage, by Henry Fowler, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2002. Contributor of articles to magazines and online journals, including Smithsonian, Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic, and Salon.com.
Movie rights to The Professor and the Madman were sold to Mel Gibson.
Work in Progress
The story of French mathematician Evariste Galois.
From travel books that take the reader to the outposts of empire and full-blown profiles of unlikely historical figures to disaster books chronicling volcanoes and earthquakes, British writer Simon Winchester has done it all. A journalist turned freelance writer, Winchester has had a string of successes that include 1998's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, which tells the intriguing behind-the-scenes story of the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the compelling Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883, which looks at the volcanic eruption that shook the entire world in the late nineteenth century. Other books from Winchester have examined topics from England's imperial past to the history of China. "These were subjects that I found interesting," Winchester told Michael J. Ybarra in a Los Angeles Times interview. "Blow me down, the public found these interesting too. I'm going to continue with this and if I become fascinated with something the public isn't interested in, so be it. I'll just be back at square one."
A thorough researcher, Winchester confessed to "re-search rapture" in an interview with Adair Lara in the San Francisco Chronicle Online. "The temptation to get diverted into fascinating by ways is enormous," the writer explained. "You've got to keep these things measured and keep your eye on the real purpose of writing the book."
From Geology to Journalism
Born in London in 1944, Winchester had youthful plans of joining the British Navy; however, his color blindness put an end to such dreams. Instead, he went to Oxford University, where he majored in geology. After graduation, he took a job as a geologist for an African mining company, only to discover that he was, in fact, "an extremely bad, incompetent geologist," as he admitted to Ybarra. In his tent one night, on the border of Congo and Uganda, he read James Morris's Coronation Everest, about the 1953 climb of Mount Everest. It struck him then that writing such a book would be a great way to earn a living. He subsequently wrote to Morris and asked simply, "Can I be you?" Morris wrote back, suggesting that Winchester get a newspaper job in England, which he did, and the two continued to stay in touch, even collaborating on the 1983 title Stones of Empire: The Buildings of the Raj.
Despite his goal of becoming an author, books remained in the future for Winchester during the late 1960s. Returning to England, he cut his journalistic teeth on the Newcastle upon Tyne Journal as a reporter for three years, then, in 1970, took a correspondent job with the Manchester Guardian that took him to Northern Ireland just as the Troubles there were breaking out. Suddenly transformed into a war reporter, Winchester came into his own as a journalist. Following this assignment, he became a news correspondent, working in the United States from 1972 to 1976. In North America he broadened his range as a freelance journalist, working for publications such as Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and Smithsonian. He also published his first book, Northern Ireland in Crisis: Reporting the Ulster Troubles, drawing on his experiences in Belfast. Beginning in 1977, Winchester got a taste for more exotic travel, and worked as a correspondent in New Delhi, India, covering much of Asia.
Enters Nonfiction Market
Winchester continued to work as a journalist throughout much of the 1980s, and was even thrown into prison in Argentina for several months during the Falklands War, accused of spying. However, increasingly his main focus was nonfiction books. One of his first successes was Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain. "I doubt that anybody has researched the British hereditary peerage as thoroughly or as entertainingly as Winchester," wrote Gerry Graber in a Los Angeles Times review of the 1982 work.
Winchester soon discovered his true theme: travel, and the more exotic the better. In The Sun Never Sets: Travels to the Remaining Outposts of the British Empire he makes his way around the world, visiting the remaining pieces of the empire on which the sun once never set, traveling from Hong Kong to Pitcairn Island. Harold M. Otness, writing in Library Journal, commended Winchester's "skillful blend of political reporting, colonial history, and vivid travel writing" in what the critic termed a "fascinating book." Reviewing the same work for Smithsonian, David Lancashire dubbed it a "sprightly account."
Korea falls under Winchester's lens in Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, a 1988 work in which the author recounts meeting the residents of that country while on a walking tour. For Reid Beddow, writing in the Washington Post Book World, the work serves as an "amiable travel book," while Library Journal contributor John H. Boyle found it to be an "engaging, informed, and often humorous distillation." Winchester tackles a rather larger topic in 1991's Pacific Rising: The Emergence of a New World Culturem—published in Great Britain as The Pacificm—which describes the birth of a new, non-Western civilization on the shores and islands of the Pacific. William Chapman, writing in the Washington Post Book World, commented that Winchester takes on a "mind-boggling task of defining the rise of a pan-Pacific identity," while in the Economist a writer maintained that in this "unfailingly entertaining" work the author at times is hard put to stretch his analogies and symbolism far enough to encompass all the region's disparate cultures. While a similar complaint was voiced by John H. Boyle in Library Journal, the reviewer also found the narrative "enriched by [Winchester's] keen eye for fascinating anecdotes and details." Likewise, a writer for Publishers Weekly called Pacific Rising "delightful and informative."
Traveling the nearly 4,000 miles of China's Yangtze River provided inspiration for yet another of Winchester's books, The River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze and Back in Chinese Time. Here the author again blends personal observation with social and cultural history in an "interesting, informative, well-written account," according to Caroline A. Mitchell in Library Journal. Alice Joyce, writing in Booklist, found this same work a "fluent chronicle, both satisfying and intriguing," while a reviewer for Publishers Weekly dubbed the book "absorbing." And Anthony Day, reviewing The River at the Center of the World for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, wrote that Winchester "has hit another home run for British travel writers."
From Travel to Offbeat Biography
As Winchester got older and exotic travel became more difficult, he realized that he would need a fall-back plan for his writing; some other theme that he could research at a more leisurely pace. As he related to Dave Weich in an interview for Powells.com, "As I get older, the ability to wander around the world, at least in a Sebastian Junger type way, diminishes because you find all the Sebastian Jungers snapping at your heels. I was thinking, What am I going to do? How is this career going to pan out as I get older if I can't write books and I'm getting too old for journalism? Then out of the blue sky comes The Professor and the Madman."
As Winchester recalls, he was operating a tramp steamer in preparation for writing about that vanishing way of life when, in a book sent to him by one of his editors, he stumbled across a footnote about W. C. Minor, a convicted murderer and lunatic who helped contribute to the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED. Winchester realized that in this footnote he had the makings of a wonderful tale. The professor behind the resulting book's title is J. A. H. Murray, the determined editor behind the publication of the massive reference work. Volunteers helped to create the OED by submitting definitions and illustrative quotations. One of the most prolific contributors was a Dr. W. C. Minor, who supplied more than 10,000 entries. After seventeen years of corresponding with Minor, Murray decided to visit his star worker. He was shocked to discover that Minor was confined to Broadmoor Asylum, a British prison for the criminally insane.
Minor had been born in Ceylon to American missionary parents and had acted as a surgeon in the U.S. Civil War. Perhaps as a result of the horrors he saw during that conflict, he became paranoid and schizophrenic, and he ultimately left America for Europe in search of a rest cure. Probably under the influence of his delusions, he shot and killed an innocent man, believing him to be an assassin. Once confined to Broadmoor, Minor was treated well; he had two cells and was allowed to keep his precious library in one of them. He was lucid most of the time, yet at night he was still plagued by hallucinations and terrible self-loathing, which eventually drove him to mutilate himself. A Library Journal reviewer rated The Professor and the Madman a "delightful, simply written book" that "tells how a murderer made a huge contribution to what became a major reference source in the Western world." As a Publishers Weekly writer noted: "Winchester celebrates a gloomy life brightened by devotion to a quietly noble, nearly anonymous task."
Reviewing the book, an Economist critic called it "an extraordinary tale, and Simon Winchester could not have told it better. His fast pace means that the lexicographical details are never dull. He has an engaging sympathy with this main characters, and even the minor ones are painted with swift, vivid strokes. . . . Winchester has written a splendid book." This book made Winchester's career, for it remained on the bestseller lists for months and was even optioned for a film by Hollywood actor Mel Gibson.
Journalism drew Winchester's attention to his next book, The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans, in which the author visited and reported on that war-ravaged region. With the title that followed, he celebrates another solitary and underreported person and achievement. The Map That Changed the World: The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of Science presents the story of Smith, a surveyor and engineer who in 1815 created the "world's first proper geological map," according to Kathryn Hughes, writing in the New Statesman. Smith labored on for years on his own to create a more graphic representation of the world that showed geological strata, a finding that called into question the Genesis theory of creation. Robert Macfarlane, writing in the Spectator, found the book a "charming biography," while Hughes described it as "wonderful." Hughes also felt that Winchester is "particularly impressive" in the manner in which he "recreates the world picture of society tottering on the edge of an epistemological abyss." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Malcolm C. McKenna had similar praise: "Winchester brings Smith's struggle to light in clear and beautiful language."
Geology on a grander scale comes into focus in Winchester's Krakatoa, a recounting of one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in Earth's known history. The entire island was vaporized when its volcano exploded in 1883, sending shock waves around the world, killing scores of thousands of people, and, through its atmospheric emissions, creating brilliant sunsets viewed around the world for years afterward. So large was the explosion, it was heard 3,000 miles away; the tidal wave the volcano generated killed people living in coastal communities 2,000 miles from the blast. Winchester provides the background to the explosion in this "lavish rijstafel of a book," as a reviewer for the Economist described Krakatoa. The same critic further noted that Winchester writes an "engagingly discursive . . . account of the events leading up to the cataclysm." Lev Grossman, reviewing the same title in Time, observed that the author "takes an event that happened in a white-hot second and expands it in both directions, filling in the backstory and aftershocks to create a mesmerizing page turner." Grossman also called Winchester an "extraordinarily graceful writer." Spectator critic Justin Marozzi also had praise for the book, remarking that "we learn a great deal in the course of this book and Winchester, storyteller to the core, wears his erudition lightly." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Richard Ellis was full of superlatives, calling Krakatoa "thrilling, comprehensive, literate, meticulously researched and scientifically accurate; it is one of the best books ever written about the history and significance of a natural disaster."
In 2003 Winchester revisited the subject of his breakout bestseller, The Professor and the Madman, with The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. While the former book focused on two main players in the etymological endeavor, the more recent work tells "the eventful, personality-filled history of the definitive English dictionary," as a critic for Publishers Weekly observed. Commissioned in 1857, the dictionary took seven decades and its publisher incurred huge cost overruns to complete it. Among the cast of characters in the OED's history are Murray and Minor, as well as readers and researchers such as J. R. R. Tolkien. In the end, the dictionary was completed at over 15,000 single-spaced pages with over 400,000 words and almost 200,000 illustrative quotations. Winchester's book will be, according to a Publishers Weekly contributor, "required reading for word mavens." A contributor for Kirkus Reviews likewise found the book a "magnificent account, swift and compelling, of obsessions, scholarship, and, ultimately, philanthropy of the first magnitude." A reviewer for Christian Century called the book a "fascinating account," while Robert McCrum, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, found it "an affectionate and frankly partisan study of the making of a great dictionary." For William F. Buckley, Jr., writing in the New York Times Book Review, Winchester's book "is teeming with knowledge and alive with insights."
Winchester returns to the world of catastrophes for his 2005 work, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. Like Krakatoa, the book deals with the geology of disaster and its social and political after-effects. One of the strangest of the latter was the rise of evangelical Christianity in the United States as a result of this cataclysm. Considering that there have been more than three thousand books published on the San Francisco earthquake, Winchester, whose own contribution was scheduled to be out in time for the centenary of that temblor, knew he had his work cut out for him. He moved to California for several months to research the project, and even traveled to distant points such as Alaska and Chile, which endured their own devastating earthquakes. "What have I got to add?" was Winchester's first question, as he recalled in his interview with Ybarra. Speaking with Gary Singh for Metroactive.com, Winchester further elaborated on his approach to this new project: "Somehow, I've got to do it better than it's ever been done. I think the 100th anniversary deserves a really good book. And to write that really good book, to get it all in, getting it all right and putting in its proper context, is a formidable task."
If you enjoy the works of Simon Winchester
If you enjoy the works of Simon Winchester, you may also want to check out the following:
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, 2003.
Christine Wicker, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead, 2004.
Jay Feldman, When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes, 2005.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1983, p. 177.
Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly, November 30, 1992, David Oyama, review of Pacific Nightmare: How Japan Starts World War III, p. 13.
Atlantic Monthly, September, 1982, p. 94.
Booklist, November 1, 1996, Alice Joyce, review of The River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze and Back in Chinese Time, p. 477; August, 1998, Brad Hooper, review of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, p. 1941; August, 1999, Ted Hipple, review of The Professor and the Madman (audiobook), p. 2075; May 15, 2001, Brad Hooper, review of The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, p. 1706; September 1, 2003, Mary Ellen Quinn, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, pp. 4-5; September 15, 2004, Brad Hooper, review of Simon Winchester's Calcutta, p. 202.
Business Week, September 27, 1982, p. 12; September 3, 2001, review of The Map That Changed the World, p. 18.
Christian Century, October 4, 2003, review of The Meaning of Everything, p. 6.
Contemporary Review, November, 2004, Stephen Wade, review of The Meaning of Everything, p. 308.
Economist, October 3, 1981, p. 108; February 23, 1991, review of The Pacific, p. 93; May 16, 1992, review of Pacific Nightmare, p. 119; May 16, 1998, p. S12; March 29, 2003, review of Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883.
English Journal, September, 1999, p. 137.
Far Eastern Economic Review, June 30, 1988, p. 44; April 11, 1991, p. 39; October 8, 1992, review of Pacific Nightmare, p. 50.
Geographical, December, 2003, Christian Amodeo, "In Conversation," p. 130.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2003, review of The Meaning of Everything, p. 1010.
Kliatt, January, 2002, John E. Boyd, review of The Fracture Zone, p. 50; November, 2004, Mary Ellen Snodgrass, review of The Meaning of Everything, p. 29.
Library Journal, June 15, 1982, p. 1237; September 15, 1984, p. 1754; May 1, 1986, Harold M. Otness, review of The Sun Never Sets: Travels to the Remaining Outposts of the British Empire, p. 121; April 1, 1988, John H. Boyle, review of Korea: A Walkthrough the Land of Miracles, p. 95; April 15, 1991, review of Pacific Rising, p. 110; September 1, 1992, Elsa Pendleton, review of Pacific Nightmare, p. 218; October 15, 1996, Caroline A. Mitchell, review of The River at the Center of the World, p. 81; August, 1998, p. 114; March 15, 1999, Danna Bell-Russell, review of The Professor and the Madman, p. 126; September 1, 2003, I. Pour-El, review of Krakatoa, pp. 229-230; October 15, 2004, Ravi Shenoy, review of Simon Winchester's Calcutta, p. 79.
Los Angeles Times, July 2, 1982, Gary Graber, review of Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain; April 24, 2004, Michael J. Ybarra, "A Seismic Shift," p. E1.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 22, 1996, Anthony Day, review of The River at the Center of the World, p. 4; May 11, 2003, Kenneth Reich, review of Krakatoa, p. 10; October 19, 2003, Robert McCrum, review of The Meaning of Everything, p. 6.
M2 Best Books, October 22, 2003, Darren Ingram, review of The Meaning of Everything.
National Review, December 21, 1998, Linda Bridges, review of The Professor and the Madman, p. 64.
New Statesman, July 2, 2001, Kathryn Hughes, "When the World Was Flat," review of The Map That Changed the World, p. 54.
New Yorker, April 9, 1984, p. 147.
New York Review of Books, December 8, 1996, p. 31; August 30, 1998; September 24, 1998, John Gross, review of The Professor and the Madman, p. 13; October 18, 2001, Stephen Jay Gould, review of The Map That Changed the World, pp. 51-56.
New York Times Book Review, June 1, 1986, Andrew Harvey, review of The Sun Never Sets, p. 14; April 28, 1991, review of Pacific Rising, p. 10; October 18, 1992, Malcolm Bossed, review of Pacific Nightmare, p. 11; December 8, 1996, David Willis McCullough, review of The River at the Center of the World, p. 31; August 30, 1998, David Walton, review of The Professor and the Madman, p. 12; August 5, 2001, Malcolm McKenna, review of The Map That Changed the World, p. 14; April 20, 2003, Richard Ellis, review of Krakatoa, p. 9; October 12, 2003, William F. Buckley, Jr., review of The Meaning of Everything, p. 13.
New York Times Magazine, January 23, 2005, Deborah Solomon, "Dean of Disaster," p. 13.
Publishers Weekly, April 30, 1982, p. 54; March 14, 1986, review of The Sun Never Sets, p. 93; February 22, 1991, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Pacific Rising, p. 206; July 27, 1992, review of Pacific Nightmare, p. 47; September 16, 1996, review of The River at the Center of the World, p. 59; July 20, 1998, p. 196; November 2, 1998, review of The Professor and the Madman, p. 35; September 27, 1999, review of The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans, p. 80; June 4, 2001, review of The Map That Changed the World, p. 66; August 27, 2001, Yvonne Nolan, "Tracking the Mapmaker," pp. 44-45; March 10, 2003, Matt Nelson, "An Explosion of Attention," p. 64; July 14, 2003, review of The Meaning of Everything, p. 66; May 19, 2003, "Winchester's SF Earthquake," p. 24.
School Library Journal, March, 1999, Susan H. Woodcock, review of The Professor and the Madman, p. 233; June, 2000, Jane S. Drabkin, review of The Fracture Zone, p. 178.
Science, August 24, 2001, David Oldroyd, review of The Map That Changed the World, p. 1439.
Smithsonian, April, 1987, David Lancashire, review of The Sun Never Sets, p. 156.
Spectator, July 7, 2001, Robert Macfarlane, review of The Map That Changed the World, p. 32; June 7, 2003, Justin Marozzi, review of Krakatoa, pp. 44-45; November 1, 2003, Christopher Howse, "A Triumph of Optimism," review of The Meaning of Everything, p. 44.
Time, September 14, 1998, Jesse Birnbaum, review of The Professor and the Madman, p. 76; May 12, 2003, Lev Grossman, review of Krakatoa, p. 79.
Time International, August 17, 1998, review of The River at the Center of the World, p. 31.
Times (London), January 28, 1982.
Washington Post, May 22, 2003, George F. Will, review of Krakatoa, p. A35.
Washington Post Book World, April 4, 1988, Reid Beddow, review of Korea, p. 2; April 14, 1991, William Chapman, review of Pacific Rising, p. 6.
Wilson Library Bulletin, June, 1986, Sam Staggs, review of The Sun Never Sets, p. 87.
Wilson Quarterly, autumn, 2003, Clive Davis, review of The Meaning of Everything, p. 120.
BookPage.com, http://www.bookpage.com/ (Ed-ward Morris, "Simon Winchester Digs into the Past to Make History."
ContemporaryLit.com, http://www.contemporarylit.com/ (May 20, 2005), Jonathan Lasser, review of The River at the Center of the World.
Guardian Online,http://www.guardian.co.uk/ (January 4, 2005), Simon Winchester, "Nature's Way."
Metroactive.com, http://www.metroactive.com/ (March 3-10, 2004), Gary Singh, "Complex Simon."
Powells.com, http://www.powells.com/ (October 24, 2001), Dave Weich, interview with Winchester.
San Francisco Chronicle Online,http://www.sfgate.com/ (April 6, 2003), Adair Lara, "Q & A: Simon Winchester: Enraptured by Research, Intrigued by All."
Simon Winchester Web site,http://www.simonwinchester.com (May 20, 2005).*