Winchester, Simon 1944-

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

WINCHESTER, Simon 1944-

PERSONAL: Born September 28, 1944, in London, England; married Judy Winchester, 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.

ADDRESSES: Home—Berkshire County, MA, and Luing, Western Isles of Scotland. Agent—Anthony Sheil Associates Ltd., 2-3 Morwell St., London WC1B 3AR, England.

CAREER: Writer and journalist. Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, reporter, 1967-70; Guardian, London, England, correspondent in Northern Ireland, 1970-72, in Washington, DC, 1972-76, and in New Delhi, India, 1977-79; Daily Mail, London, chief U.S. correspondent in Washington, DC, 1979-80; Sunday Times, London, England, senior feature writer, 1981—. San Jose State University, CA, Lurie Professor, 2004.

AWARDS, HONORS: Journalist of the Year, England; AAPG Journalism Award.

WRITINGS:

nonfiction

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.

(With Jan Morris) Stones of Empire: The Buildings of the Raj, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1983.

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.

Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1988.

Pacific Rising: The Emergence of a New World Culture, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 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 (Stockport, 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 in England as The Surgeon of Crowthorne, Viking (New York, NY), 1998.

The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans, Harper-Collins (New York, NY), 1999.

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.

Contributing editor of Harper's. Author of introduction to the 2002 edition of A Dictionary of Modern Usage, by Henry Fowler, Oxford University Press (New York, NY). Contributor of articles to magazines, including Smithsonian, Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic, and Salon.

WORK IN PROGRESS: The Treasures of India, for Time-Life; A History of Rioting in Britain, a film for British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), with a book expected to follow; a history of the San Francisco earthquake, to be published in 2006.

SIDELIGHTS: Simon Winchester is a journalist and writer as well as a trained geologist. Born in London and educated at Oxford, Winchester worked on oil rigs in the North Sea before turning his hand to journalism, writing as a correspondent for British newspapers around the world, covering stories from the Watergate affair to the Falklands War. In 1987 he became a full-time freelance writer, exploring topics from the urbane to the catastrophic. His surprise best-seller The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary tells an intriguing behind-the-scenes story of the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, while his 2003 work Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883 looks at a volcanic eruption that affected 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. A thorough researcher, Winchester confessed to "research rapture" in an interview with Adair Lara in the San Francisco Chronicle Online. "I'm in total rapture when I'm doing research," Winchester noted. "The temptation to get diverted into fascinating byways is enormous. You've got to keep these things measured and keep your eye on the real purpose of writing the book."

"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 Winchester's 1981 book Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain. In this book, the author explores the power and prestige of British peerage by way of fact and anecdote. Winchester's basic contention is that Britain, by clinging to the legislative rights of heredity, limits its chances to adapt to the dynamic, modern world. Unlike Japan, which abandoned its system of peerage after World War II, Britain maintained its institution in which lawmakers are selected by birth right. Now, if Britain is to "retain respect of the thrusting, grasping assertive countries of the globe that now surround her," the country must, noted Winchester in Their Noble Lordships, "develop a machinery of government that is in tune with the demands of the century."

Nine books and sixteen years later, Winchester told a strange but true story in The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The professor behind the title is J. A. H. Murray, the determined editor who was behind the publication of the massive reference work of the title. Volunteers helped to create the dictionary 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. He acted as a surgeon in the Civil War. Perhaps as a result of the horrors he saw during that conflict, Minor became paranoid and schizophrenic. He left America for Europe, looking for 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 as 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." A Publishers Weekly writer noted, "Winchester celebrates a gloomy life brightened by devotion to a quietly noble, nearly anonymous task."

Reviewing the British edition of the book, which was published as The Surgeon of Crowthorne, an Economist reviewer 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 his main characters, and even the minor ones are painted with swift, vivid strokes.…Mr. Winchester has written a splendid book."

Winchester celebrates another solitary and under-reported achievement in The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. In this book, Winchester presents the story of Smith, a mere surveyor and engineer, who created in 1815 the "world's first proper geological map," according to Kathryn Hughes, writing in the New Statesman. Smith labored 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 commented that Winchester "has written a wonderful book." Hughes also felt that Winchester was "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 the nineteenth century. The entire island was vaporized when its volcano exploded in 1883, sending shock waves around the world, killing scores of thousands of people, and providing brilliant sunsets around the world. So large was the explosion that it was heard 3,000 miles away; the tsunamis it generated killed people 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 has written an "engagingly discursive … account of the events leading up to the cataclysm." Lev Grossman, reviewing the same title in Time, observed that Winchester "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." The Spectator's 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." And writing in the New York Times Book Review, Richard Ellis was full of superlatives: "[Krakatoa] is 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."

Winchester returns to the world of his breakout bestseller, The The Professor and the Madman, with his 2003 title The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. While the former book focuses on two main players in the etymological endeavor, the latter book 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 huge cost overruns to complete. Among the cast of characters in its completion are Murray and Minor from the earlier work, but also 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 the Publishers Weekly, reviewer, "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 the 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." And for William F. Buckley, Jr., writing in the New York Times Book Review, the book "is teeming with knowledge and alive with insights."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

books

Winchester, Simon, Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain, Random House (New York, NY), 1982.

periodicals

Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly, November 30, 1992, David Oyama, review of Pacific Nightmare: How Japan Starts World War III: A Future History, p. 13.

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; September 1, 2003, Mary Ellen Quinn, review of The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, pp. 4-5.

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.

Economist, May 16, 1992, review of Pacific Nightmare, p. 119; March 29, 2003, review of Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.

Far Eastern Economic Review, October 8, 1992, review of Pacific Nightmare, p. 50.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2003, review of The Meaning of Everything, p. 1010.

Library Journal, May 1, 1986, Harold M. Otness, review of The Sun Never Sets: Travels to the Remaining Outposts of the British Empire, p. 121; April 15, 1991, review of Pacific Rising: The Emergence of a New World Culture, 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; 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.

Los Angeles Times, July 2, 1982, Gary Graber, review of Their Noble Lordships.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, 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, review of The Map That Changed the World, p. 54.

New York Review of Books, September 24, 1998, John Gross, review of The Professor and the Madman, p. 13.

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 Bosse, 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 C. 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.

Publishers Weekly, March 14, 1986, review of The Sun Never Sets, p. 93; February 22, 1991, 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; 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; 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

School Library Journal, March, 1999, Susan H. Woodcock, review of The Professor and the Madman, p. 233.

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.

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.

Washington Post, May 22, 2003, George F. Will, review of Krakatoa, p. A35.

Wilson Library Bulletin, June, 1986, Sam Staggs, review of The Sun Never Sets, p. 87.

online

AAPG Web site,http://www.aapg.org/ (November 14, 2003).

Official Simon Winchester Web site,http://www.simonwinchester.com (November 14, 2003).

San Francisco Chronicle Online,http://www.sfgate.com/ (April 6, 2003), Adair Lara, "Q & A: Simon Winchester: Enraptured by Research, Intrigued by All."

San Jose State University Web site,http://www2.sjsu.edu/ (November 14, 2003), "Simon Winchester."*