Why is Simon Winchester so popular? Assessing the author of The Professor and the Madman and other books.

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March 30 2011 6:56 AM

Simon Winchester

The historian as tour guide.

Author Simon Winchester.
Author Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester, the author of The Professor and the Madman and other best-selling works of popular history, came out with his last book in the fall, around the time the House fell to the GOP and Italy's prime minister got dropped, like a thin piece of veal, into the frying pan for alleged acts of willful bunga bunga. Four months later, Congress remains cripplingly divided, Berlusconi's exploits are still smoking up the room —and Winchester is miles away, having moved on to other projects, other interests, and, in fact, another book release entirely. The Alice Behind Wonderland, published this month, is Winchester's seventh research-based title in 10 years. (That count doesn't include an omnibus of travel writing he compiled several seasons back.) At 100 pages, it's a short book—this would seem to indicate that Winchester does, sometimes, sleep—and a good example of the densely garnished, character-based history that has brought him such success. It's also, like a lot of his recent titles, oddly mediocre. Winchester is not the most artful stylist, the most dazzling scholar, or the deftest storyteller publishing history narratives today. Why have these fast-baked, eccentric books made him one of the most widely read historical writers of his generation?

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

In the years since his first great success in 1998, with The Professor and the Madman, Winchester has had four titles on the New York Times best-seller list. At a superficial level, there is little in the works themselves to forecast such success. Where popular historians like David McCullough stick to topics of iconic national interest—the Founding Fathers, the Brooklyn Bridge, Teddy Roosevelt—Winchester favors esoteric, often tweedy subjects. (Many of his recent books pertain to Victorian culture or Earth science.) Lucid prose is supposed to be an asset in the wide world of general readers, and yet Winchester's style is mannered and slippery, mixing British old-boy periphrasis with occasionally random-seeming flurries of detail. (A typical exposition, from the new book: "His immense, long-lived, and excessively clever family first saw to that: his relationships with each of his seven sisters—Fanny, Elizabeth, Caroline, Mary, Louisa, Margaret, and Henrietta—and his three brothers—Edwin, Wilfred, and Skeffington—were warm, and prepared the outwardly quiet and rather piously high-minded Dodgson for a lifetime of close associations and lasting friendships.") The more you study his work on the page, the more mysterious its success seems.

Yet this peculiarity lies near the heart of his appeal. Winchester found his long-form voice as a travel writer, and in the years since, he has grafted the approach and allure of that genre onto his narration of history. His accounts of the past, like glossy lifestyle dispatches, simulate for readers the experience of discovery while keeping them at a spectator's safe distance. It makes for easy and convivial reading; yet there's also something slick and dangerous in this method, and not just because of the nuance lost along the way. Winchester, at his weakest, coaxes readers into a receptive mode, a kind of historical tourism. Like many tour guides in fraught territory, he is eager to smile broadly and proffer detailed responses to all the wrong questions.

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Winchester published his first book, In Holy Terror, in 1975. Since then, he's turned out nearly 20 original volumes of nonfiction, plus one novel. Before reaching this hardcover velocity, he was an intrepid newspaper reporter. Winchester made his name as the Guardian's man on the ground in Belfast in the fraught early '70s, then got dispatched to Washington, D.C., where he filed articles about the Nixon White House as it came apart. Less than a decade later, doing field reporting in Patagonia, he was captured by the Argentine regime and imprisoned, with two other British journalists, for three months. He used the experience for a 1983 book, Prison Diary: Argentina (and drew on it again in Atlantic). Two years later, he was back out in the field, sending dispatches from China.

Winchester's slow passage from on-the-ground reporting to history came about through a change in the editorial marketplace. In 1987, Condé Nast Traveler, one of a few lifestyle magazines freshly launched into the then-prosperous climate, asked Winchester to manage its Asia coverage. By then, he'd mostly sloughed off his news-desk style in favor of a voice that was more easygoing, more subjective, based in observation more than news—in short, the voice of commercial travel writing.

That year, Winchester wrote a piece for the New York Times describing an epiphany he had experienced while leading a tourism trip in western India. When a luxury hotel in Jodhpur failed to register the group's booking, he finagled shelter for his well-heeled charges in a rundown castle nearby. Instead of being put off by this crude replacement, he found, his tourists loved the place—specifically, the window onto authentic local life that it offered. They canceled most of their remaining itinerary and started learning Hindi. "A tourist," Winchester wrote afterward, "is a beast who is largely the product of his environment, and the vital fact is that no one—not just us—is content to be one. Everyone … has the inborn potential to be a true traveler."

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