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Simon Winchester Unearths Another Scholar

Simon Winchester Upon earning a degree in geology at Oxford, Simon Winchester, twenty-one years old, set off for Uganda to prospect for copper. Disillusioned with the work, he happened upon a book by James Morris, Coronation Everest, the story of the first team to summit Mount Everest and the reporters who raced the news back to London. The book inspired him to write a letter to its author, asking simply, "Can I be you?"

Forty years and nineteen books later, in The Map That Changed the World Winchester returns to his original field of study, geology, digging up the story of William Smith and a map that forever altered our understanding of life on earth. Smith's map immediately revolutionized the energy and transportation industries, to say nothing of the profound impact it would have on Christian orthodoxy and the idea of our planet being six thousand years old. In 1859 it would serve Charles Darwin as he sailed across the globe, evidence of evolution in action.

How then did William Smith wind up in debtors' prison after the map's publication? And why, for decades, did credit elude him entirely?

Winchester's 1998 bestseller, The Professor and the Madman, told the true story of Dr. W.C. Minor, a convicted murderer who from his book-lined cell at England's Broadmoor Lunatic Criminal Asylum provided more than 10,000 definitions for the Oxford English Dictionary. In his follow-up, he finds a subject equally worthy of rediscovery, another overlooked story worth excavating from the past.

Dave: The Professor and the Madman - both tell the story of a forgotten scholar. But in terms of how you approached this book, I'd imagine that trying to captivate a reader would present a greater challenge because you're not talking about words, which seems like a likely topic of interest among readers; instead, the subject is geology.

Simon Winchester: I couldn't agree with you more. In fact, in England the subtitle of the book is "The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science" because they were worried that the word geology would comprehensively turn readers off.

The extraordinary thing is that I've found there are an awful lot of geologists out there. They come out of the woodwork. They consider themselves misunderstood - you know, the whole Rocks for Jocks business; it was a slightly shameful science. I've always been romantically attracted to it, but at first it was an uphill task with geology, although I must say that I never imagined a book about lexicography would do as well as that one did.

Dave: Aristocrats once collected and displayed fossils in their homes. It was a popular, fanciful thing to do.

Winchester: Yes, and in fact I'm supposed to be on Martha Stewart. She interviewed me because of The Professor and the Madman - she had me looking at the etymology of words like doily and antimacassar - and now she wants me back on the program to talk about fossils as home decorating items, which brings this full circle. The perfumed dandies who collected fossils in the early part of the nineteenth century and the latter part of the eighteenth century did so for their intrinsic beauty, not because of any scientific interest. They looked at them simply because they were beautiful things.

The British aristocracy and the class system play an important role in this book. The aristocrats who collected fossils as decorative items thought it was an impertinence that this man with dirt under his fingernails, who was lowly born, had made this map. That's why they plagiarized him. That's why he was driven into bankruptcy.

But there's a subtle subtext. In the early part of his career, Smith was very much befriended by the old-style, landed aristocrats, people like the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Leicester, ancient British families who looked upon the man as a wonderful fellow. They admired him and they helped him. The people who did him down when he produced the map were the nouveau riche, the arriviste aristocrats like George Bellas Greenough. At the end of the story, the man who comes to Smith's rescue is himself an aristocrat of the old, landed school. So there are really two types: the old school and the arrivistes.

Dave: Smith was an engineer, building canals and helping to develop coal mines. Though he was by all accounts a brilliant person, he was shunned.

Winchester: I think things have changed. Maybe by the time you got to the nineteenth century proper and you had people like Robert Stevenson, engineers were respected, but when Smith was born the people who ran the country regarded them with disdain. And he was a relatively primitive engineer - he didn't build bridges; he dug ditches, basically. It's another aspect of the multiplicity of class distinctions in our country.

Dave: Some parts of the story you weren't able to tell. You couldn't find out much about Smith's wife, for instance. That must have been frustrating.

Winchester: Desperately little about his wife. Yes, it was frustrating.

For a start, dealing with a man called Smith - that was a problem. I had looked long and hard to find any living relative of his. William Smith, himself, as far as we know, didn't have any children. All the parish registers...I drove myself batty looking through all those nineteenth century registers looking for Smiths.

I didn't find any living relatives. Then on the first day I gave a speech about this book, in Oxford at the University Museum, in the line of people coming up to have their books signed afterwards was a man called David Taylor who shook my hand and said, "I am a living relative of William Smith and here is my family tree to prove it." I wanted to say, "Why the devil didn't I find you a year ago?!"

Dave: While you were researching this book, you found a connection between William Smith and Peter Mark Roget.

Winchester: That was extraordinary. In the list of people who finally commended Smith for his work and awarded him the Wollaston Medal, geology's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, was P.M. Roget. I thought, No, it couldn't be the same fellow, but it was, Peter Mark Roget, which points out the amazing nature of nineteenth century polymaths. So many people knew so many things. I didn't know Roget was a geologist, a founding member of the Geological Society in London. He was also an astronomer. He made lists of words, as we know only too well with his Thesaurus. And he was the man who essentially noticed the phenomenon of retention of visual memory that later allowed the motion picture camera to be invented. So he's the father of the cinema, the father of the thesaurus, a geologist...is there no end to his abilities?

Dave: I discovered your article about Roget's Thesaurus in The Atlantic by stumbling upon the letters to the editor in a subsequent edition. They were scathing. Readers were outraged. I thought, I have to read this article. What did Winchester say?

You make it perfectly clear in your article that you're not knocking Roget. If anything, you argue, Roget aimed too high by assuming too much of his audience. But, essentially, his thesaurus was later co-opted for a purpose he'd never imagined. I found it to be a fascinating article about shortcuts, about cheating: the thesaurus as Cliffs Notes.

Winchester: And subjecting our language to Cliffs Notes is a shame as far as I'm concerned. It was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the readers of The Atlantic Monthly took it very much to heart.

There's a piece in Vocabular Review this month, attacking me for my piece and David Foster Wallace, who wrote a long piece about language in Harper's at almost the same time. I haven't read it because I didn't want to be depressed while I'm on book tour, but apparently it just takes us apart.

My point was very simple: to present a catalog of synonyms from which we may pick and choose words to put into our essays or speeches is a very bad thing because there is no such thing as a true synonym. Every word has its particular place in the language, and to give a basketful of words that allegedly say the same thing, to pluck willy-nilly from that basket and insert a word into a sentence because you think it to be synonymous with the other...well, you choose the wrong one. You ignore the subtle differences. It degrades the language. It makes us sloppy in our use of the language.

Dave: No complete dictionary existed previous to the Oxford English Dictionary. In The Professor and the Madman, you use Shakespeare as an example when you ask, "How could he possibly have written all these plays and poems without a dictionary? How could he confidently have used those words?" Certainly it's a mind-boggling proposition today. How often does a writer look to the dictionary for reassurance? You want to get the right word.

In the Atlantic article, you compare the thesaurus to a calculator: it gives us the answers without any insight into the nature of the problem - also, of course with a thesaurus the answer is by its nature inexact. With spell check, dictionaries, and thesauri built into word processing programs, not to mention the sloppy conventions of email, who in this culture is going to take the time to learn the subtleties of these words again?

Winchester: I like to see and hear the language properly used. I suspect there are a rather large number of people who feel as strongly about it as I.

Of course, what I found when The Professor and the Madman came out is that there are an awful lot of very pedantic people out there, not least the enormous number of people who accused me - wrongly, I might say - of misusing the word fulsome in the book. It's been three years and I still get about two letters a week. I was getting twenty letters a week when the book came out.

Just yesterday, a person stood up in the audience and said, "How dare you use the word fulsome to mean extravagant when it actually means revolting or disgusting!" I said, "Hold on a moment. You know and I know that for at least the last twenty years fulsome has come to mean extravagant." She said, "Yes, I know, but you're just contributing to that."

Yes, contributing to the reality that words change their meaning over time. That is the whole basis of the Oxford English Dictionary: words evolve, and you use illustrative quotations to show how they evolve.

Dave: Things changing over time, the evolution of the language...the same way that fossils mark the progress of time, so do words. There's a spiritual connection between these two studies that seem so unrelated on the outside.

Winchester: I didn't design it that way, but you're absolutely right. Of course, the word evolution underpins both these stories. The evolution of language is illustrated so well in the OED and The Map That Changed the World is precisely about the evolution of human creatures.

Smith was one of those essential markers on the route to Darwin. When Darwin went off on the Beagle, he took a copy of William Smith's map and a list of Smith's fossils.

William Smith didn't realize the significance of what he was discovering, but he was able to show that within any one lateral population of ammonites or echinoids, for example, there was variation, and that when you look chronologically - in other words, vertically rather than laterally - you'll see evolution. And these were the two central planks of what Darwin wrote about in 1859. Evolution underpins both stories in a way that I didn't realize when I wrote them.

Dave: You've written nineteen books. A lot of people don't know that. You talked last night about your sales history before Professor and the Madman.

Previously, you'd been a travel writer. I haven't quite made it through all nineteen of your books.

Winchester: No one has!

Dave: Well, I had a chance to read some of the book in which you travel the length of the Yangtze, and it was fascinating. I wanted to read your book about the Balkans, but I didn't have time.

Talk about that change. How has it been, spending so many years on one form only to change paths a few years ago and immediately find an enormous audience?

Winchester: In 1996, when I was beginning the Yangtze book, I was beginning to wonder whether publishers would continue to underwrite these trips of mine. It was not making economic sense for anybody, and the publishing world was becoming a more bottom-line driven industry. Yet they were gaily providing money for me to go on exotic trips and write books that nobody bothered to read. That was going to come to an end.

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 to do journalism? Then, out of the clear blue sky comes The Professor and the Madman.

Publishers had given me a sizeable sum of money to buy an 850-ton tramp steamer and write about a vanishing way of maritime life. With six friends of mine I was running it as an operating tramp steamer around the world. Then my publisher said to me one day, "These are the books I'm publishing. Take any one you like." Just to read. For some extraordinary reason, I took Jonathon Green's Chasing the Sun. I was reading it in the bath one morning, and there was this footnote: "Readers will of course be familiar with the story of W.C. Minor, the convicted, deranged, American lunatic murderer, contributor to the OED" I thought, This is an amazing story. No one had ever written it.

My then-publisher said, "This is not a story. It's a magazine article. Don't waste your time." I nearly gave it up, but another publisher came along and told me to do it. That completely changed everything. After all these books that went straight from the typewriter to the remainder tables, or so it seemed, why not write books about historical subjects? So I've done these two.

The next book is about Krakatoa. It's Java, so there's an element of travel. It's part geology. But it's mainly about the year 1883 when Krakatoa exploded so cataclysmically. It was the first major disaster in the world that happened in the aftermath of the submarine telegraph cable - so the whole world knew about it instantly. That changed a lot of things.

Then an extraordinary thing happened the other day at the Vancouver Writers Festival. I was on stage with Amir Aczel, who's written a wonderful book on the invention of the compass. He's a mathematician from Boston, a very clever man who's written books on the concept of zero, on quantum mechanics, and made them all accessible. So the two of us were invited to give twenty-minute presentations on things that changed the world. Amir did the compass, and I talked about the map.

After our talks, we were invited back on stage, sitting side-by-side while the audience threw questions at us. After about five minutes talking, I suddenly remembered something. I said, "Amir, about five years ago I wrote a proposal to write a book about a twenty-one year old French mathematician who died in a duel. The night before the duel, knowing that he was going to die, he wrote a document of sixty pages, his mathematical testament, and he sent it away by messenger to a mathematician in Berlin. He went to the duel the next morning, was mortally wounded, and died two days later."

The package he sent, for some reason, was not opened for thirty-five years, but in about 1870 the mathematician opened it and read what was the most elegant, classic proof of something called Group Theory, a modern form of mathematics which completely underpins all sorts of things like modern-day cryptanalysis.

Well, I was saying this, but I couldn't remember the guy. Amir says, "Oh, you are talking about Evariste Galois, the most romantic story in all mathematics! It is a wonderful story. Do you know, Simon, I was thinking many times of writing this book, but I could never understand the French politics of the time. I could never understand the character of the man."

I said, "Amir, I knew a great deal about the man and French politics during the second empire, things like that, but the reason I didn't write the book is I couldn't understand the mathematics."

Someone from the back of the audience shouted, "Well, do it together!" And suddenly it was as if the audience disappeared and a great white light enveloped Amir and me. We started talking animatedly on stage, back and forth, saying, "I'll do this chapter. You do this chapter." Finally, we shook hands, and the audience erupted with applause. I immediately left the stage and called my agent in New York. He remembered the proposal, and he said, "Amir Aczel, you mean the man who wrote the book about the compass?"

The next morning at six, Amir rang me from his hotel room and said, "I couldn't sleep all night. I'm so excited about this idea." He's doing a book about Descartes at the moment, I'm doing the book about Krakatoa, so we can do it toward the end of next year. Fatal Equation: The Tragic Story of Evariste Galois and the Invention of Group Theory by Amir Aczel and Simon Winchester, dedicated to the Vancouver Writers Festival.

Dave: That's a great story.

Winchester: And I think it will happen.

Dave: News of Krakatoa's eruption reached people all around the world almost immediately. Last night you told the audience at Powell's about James Morris, who wrote about the first expedition to summit Mount Everest. His book, Coronation Everest, as you explain it, wasn't just about the challenge of climbing the mountain, but also the sport of getting the news back to England in time for the Queen's coronation. You cite that book as your inspiration to become a writer.

Winchester: Messengers, men with cleft sticks running through the jungle, codes...because The Daily Mail and The London Evening Standard were both hot on the story, too. They weren't up on the mountain, but they had people at base camp, and Morris had to outwit them. He did, with curious sets of codes and false messages, people running in opposite directions as decoys, special signals from the cable office in Katmandu. It was brilliantly done, and it's a story of great derring-do, the kind of thing that foreign correspondents love, confusing their colleagues, getting the story exclusively back on time.

Dave: Bill Bryson was here last year, and we were talking about travel books. Most reach very small readerships. There are more travel books than travel readers, it sometimes seems, yet even people who wouldn't bother to seek out your earlier books would be envious of the life you've been able to lead.

I read an article you wrote a few years back for Salon.com where you drove a Rolls Royce through Romania. How do you get bankrolled for these trips?

Winchester: I don't know. Endlessly sympathetic editors? I think they recognize a good idea when they hear one.

Dave: It was a great essay. It was ridiculous.

Winchester: It was fun to do.

Dave: It certainly sounded fun.

Winchester: It has been an incredible life. I hope it's not over. This recent thing I did...Smithsonian paid me to go look at all the whirlpools in the world. There are five very big whirlpools: there's The Maelstrom, on the southern end of the Lofoten Islands; there's the Saltstraumen, also in Norway; there's the Corryvreckan, which is near where some of the time I live in Scotland; there's Noruto Straight Whirlpool in Japan; and the Old Sow, off Eastport, Maine, between Deer Island, New Brunswick, and Eastport. Blow me down, the Smithsonian said, "Yes, go to all of them. This will be terrific." So we took a photographer and spent three amiable months looking at whirlpools. I hope it never stops.

Dave: How long was the story?

Winchester: Six thousand words. I think from their point of view, it worked. You can never really quantify the mathematics of it. There's a relative shortage of good ideas. I know, now, that when I stumble upon one some editor, somewhere in the world, will agree and will go to the bean counters and figure out how much it will cost.

Dave: I'm jealous, but I'm glad someone is supporting it.

Winchester: And how long is it going to go on? I don't know. I have resigned from Conde Nast Traveler now because, with no disrespect to the magazine, initially, when they began it in 1987, they did a lot of adventurous and unusual things.

I lived in Hong Kong at the time. I said to them, "Why don't I go to the best tailor in London - preferably to Prince Charles's tailor, Anderson & Shepherd - and have a suit made. I'll take that suit to Hong Kong, have it made in presumably much less time for much, much less money - a copy - then take those two suits to some independent analyst in New York (as it turned out, The Fashion Institute of Technology) and get them to do a blind test on which of the two suits is the better. And of course it turned out that the Hong Kong suit was far better. I got sued up the ying-yang by Anderson & Shepherd, but the case failed because they hadn't a leg to stand on.

Dave: And is it really true that William Least Heat-Moon bought a copy of American Heartbeat?

Winchester: He really did. I promise you.

Dave: How do you know that?

Winchester: His agent rang me up. You can ring her and check!

Dave: The reason I ask is that when he comes to Portland he spends days, literally, in the store. In River Horse, he writes about docking the boat in Tom McCall Waterfront Park so he can take his friends to Powell's. He spends hours on end in the stores collecting Americana titles.

Winchester: I'm thinking I'll stay for an hour after this chat to see what I can find about Java and Dutch colonialism. I'm assuming I'll find all sorts of stuff.

Simon Winchester visited Powell's City of Books on October 24, 2001. The next morning, before flying out for San Francisco (and the final appearance on his three-month book tour), he stopped by our living room to talk.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. Simon Winchester's Calcutta Used Trade Paper $7.50
  2. A Crack in the Edge of the World:... Used Hardcover $9.95
  3. Krakatoa: The Day the World...
    Used Hardcover $7.50
  4. The Meaning of Everything: The Story...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  5. The River at the Center of the... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  6. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale...
    Used Trade Paper $0.95
  7. The Map That Changed the World
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  8. River-Horse: Across America by Boat Used Trade Paper $5.95
  9. Coronation Everest Used Trade Paper $2.50
  10. The Riddle of the Compass: The... Used Hardcover $4.50
  11. Krakatoa: The Day the World...
    Used Hardcover $7.50
  12. The Fracture Zone: My Return to the... Used Trade Paper $5.95
  13. New Shorter Oxford English... Used Hardcover $75.00
  14. The Map That Changed the World:... Used Hardcover $11.50


Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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