Simon Winchester: A (re)consideration

More than a decade ago, when Simon Winchester’s book “The Professor and the Madman” came out, I was excited. This was exactly the kind of narrative nonfiction I love — historical (set in the 19th century), literary (about two collaborators on the Oxford English Dictionary), written for laypeople. It got great reviews, both in the press and word of mouth. I bought a copy of the book. And I … hated it. I had such a strong reaction, pretty early on, that I didn’t even finish it. Which is very unusual for me.

Since then, I’ve watched Winchester’s career with regret because he continues to write about the kind of stuff I like to read about — Krakatoa, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, brilliant oddballs who made major advances in our knowledge of the world. But I resisted, based on my bad reaction to that book.

Recently, a friend who reviewed Winchester’s recent book Atlantic recommended that I reconsider. And it was just about then that a new, slim volume came across the library circulation desk: “The Alice Behind Wonderland.” In that Winchester tells the tale behind the famous photograph of Alice Liddell taken by Charles Dodgson, better known to us as Lewis Carroll. The photograph is haunting and disturbing and especially famous since it was taken around the time that Dodgson entertained his young friend with a story that eventually became “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

So I picked up the book. And … I liked it. I wish there had been more illustrations of other photographs discussed in the text (though fortunately in this age of the internet you can nose around on Google images and see almost anything). But whatever it was that I had a bad reaction to last time, it didn’t happen. So I decided to go back to the Professor and the Madman. I can’t remember precisely what turned me off so strongly though I remember it came around the time of the description of the Civil War service of one of the protagonists. Cautiously, I started reading.

And … it’s fine. I’m about a third of the way through and for the life of me I can’t figure out why I had such an incredibly strong reaction the first time. Obviously the text has not changed so it must be me. Which is a relief, really, because now I can go back and read all of Winchester’s other books about those subjects that interest me. I’ve noticed before, primarily in fiction, how reading the same book at different times of your life can make a huge difference (“To The Lighthouse” is a totally different book at 32 than it is at 19, for instance). So sorry about that Simon, but glad to have met up with you at last.

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