Four Books by Simon Winchester

The Irish Island

by Simon Winchester, published 1988

Before writing the masterful volumes Krakatoa, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and The Professor and the Madman, geologist-writer Simon Winchester generated a series of travel books. I read this book out of a curiosity to see where one of my favorite authors started out, and was pleasantly surprised to find it quite well-written and educational.

The book Korea documents a retracing of the route of seventeenth-century explorer Hendrick Hamel, walking the entire way across South Korea. Hamel wrote a book of his travels in the land of “Corea” that brought this mysterious land to the attention of Europe.

The trick of detachment while remaining involved in the story is something that eluded the author at this point in his career, but the stories in this book are of a more personal nature than the historical retellings in later volumes. Despite the fact that he doesn’t flat-out say it, Mr. Winchester obviously loves Korea and found most of the Koreans he met fascinating.

Comparisons to other places Winchester has been are inevitable in a travel book. I was fascinated to see, however, that as the book continues, the author is more likely to compare Korea with another facet of the country, rather than, say, Shanghai or Tokyo or Dublin.

Life, the University, and Everything

The Meaning of Everything
by Simon Winchester, published 2003

The circle of the English language has a well-defined centre, but no discernible circumference.”
James Murray, Introduction to the Oxford English Dictionary

In 1998, Simon Winchester wrote a book on one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s most prolific contributors, Dr. W.C. Minor: The Professor and the Madman. Afterwards, an editor at the Oxford University Press suggested that, “…since in that story, I had written what was essentially a footnote to history, would I now care to try writing the history itself?”

The Oxford English Dictionary started as a 71-year project that a well-heeled society of etymologists set in motion at Oxford University, encompassing what was at the time the entire known English language. Headwords–the word, in a dictionary entry, that is being defined or illustrated–were to be accompanied by their derivations; by an exhaustive set of definitions of all possible shades of meaning; and by illustrative quotations, which were (and still are)the heart of the dictionary.

The author has taken to the audacious task of writing this history with enthusiasm and breadth of vision that has become his trademark. While this is perhaps the most focused of his books, it benefits greatly from a distinct lack of focus. The dictionary would likely not have been undertaken in an earlier or later British society, and the “dictionary craze” that was overtaking much of Europe and the US is a case in point. The earlier well-read lexicographical efforts of Johnson and Webster are less relevant, in this age of Netflix and iPhones, than they were in a day of literate sensationalism.

The book’s chief flaw lies in the author’s obvious love for his subject, the very impulse that also has allowed Mr. Winchester to produce some of his best prose to date. In the later chapters, detailing the end of the project and its progress to the present day, the respectful, almost awed tone of the book gains almost an evangelical flavor. But this is a small thing, as all of the book–including its slight excursion of trumpeting the unsung heroes of etymology–is the delightful, concise tale of a very human endeavor. It will appeal to those with any interest whatsoever in language or communication.

The meaning of lava: A tale of volcanos, tidal waves, and the making of the global village

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
by Simon Winchester, published in 2003

When I first opened this book, the first thing I saw was the “List of Illustrations and Maps”. Most everybody who is going to read this book knows what Krakatoa is–or was–but glancing through this page, it’s quickly obvious that Winchester has followed his MO even more than one might expect: The use of inexplicably disparate elements that somehow manage to come together in the end. Somehow.

Krakatoa is the story of a volcano that (in case you didn’t read the book’s long title) exploded in 1883, taking most of an island with it, and nearly wiping out the nearby islands of Java and Sumatra. But the eruption had planet-wide effects, and this is illustrated through the relatively new technologies of the telegraph, and the then-new network of undersea cabling.

If you’ve read Winchester’s previous books, like The Professor and the Madman, you won’t be disappointed in Krakatoa. In some ways, this is the superior book, in that it is far more global, and even though it takes place further back in history, the weaving together of history and personal experience in this book is, I think, of a flavor unique to Simon Winchester. Highly recommended.


A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906
by Simon Winchester, published in 2005

The story of the earthquake that devastated the then-young city of San Francisco is particularly well-suited to the Simon Winchester “grand event” treatment. The earthquake–and the vast fire that followed–is an event of such scale, that a writer known to convey bewildering arrays of facts well is needed to merely outline it.

The haphazard rebuilding of the city is a story that directly follows not only the quake and fire, but the needs of businesses in the city and (in particular) the fear that the young city might not bounce back. In typical style, Mr. Winchester dissects not only the disaster, but the social atmosphere it took place in.

The author has demonstrated a passion for language, and this book is no exception. The passages on writing of the time are well-written, and particularly entertaining when discussing the sub-par poetry of the time.

Aside from the geology that surrounds the story, one of the most surprisingly captivating accounts is that of how insurance companies reacted to the disaster. Some defaulted while squabbling over whether damage was fire or quake related, and those companies’ reputations suffered (if they even survived). Heartwarmingly, Lloyd’s of London enhanced its reputation considerably by instructing its agents to pay all claims.

I need not detail the glittering explanations of plate tectonics and earthquake science, of seismic instrument technology. Bringing out details inevitably lessens the sense of grandeur and sheer interconnectedness that Mr. Winchester’s best sagas convey. A Crack in the Edge of the World is a typical Simon Winchester book–which is to say, fascinating, lots of digressions that turn out to be relevant–and very well written indeed. While not his absolute best work, this book is nearly as good as his wonderful Krakatoa and The Meaning of Everything.

This post was previously published, in slightly modified form, as four separate blog posts on Neil’s personal blog.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band.


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