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."

If this hunger for unique-seeming experience wasn't lost on Winchester, neither were the limits of its authenticity. To go from being served pastries in a hotel to a being served fresh fruit on a veranda in a village, after all, is not exactly to set off into a terrifying frontier: The change from "tourist" to "traveler" he describes is really just a switch from one mode of tourism to another. It is an appealing shift, however. The books Winchester published in ensuing years worked to conjure that more authentic-seeming flavor of tourism on the page. In his volumes on Korea and the Yangtze River, he is not merely his own protagonist and narrator but a kind of proxy tourist off the beaten path, describing, wide-eyed, his exact process of discovery. In its weaker moments, this approach can be a slog to get through. (The Yangtze book begins with a Proust-paced narration of Winchester's email-checking habits and what may be a misquotation of his own computer—"You have mail!") But at its best, it offers the thrill of discovery, with all the wandering, false leads, and gleeful eye for eccentricity that tourism at its best allows.

The Professor and the Madman, which marked Winchester's shift away from the first person, brought this approach to bear on research rather than experience. The book narrates the strangely interwoven lives of James Murray, who helmed the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and William Minor, an erstwhile military doctor who compiled quotations from a lunatic asylum. It is framed not so much as a proper history—critical, argued, fully sourced—as a travel narrative. The safari Winchester leads us on starts in the preface: "Although the official government files relating to this case are secret, and have been locked away for more than a century, I have recently been allowed to see them," he explains. Secret files, unexplored by human eyes! From here, he leads us through the quirky world of Victorian Oxford and Civil War trauma, describing physical settings at length and pausing to elaborate a technical point or a matter of convention like a guide stopping along the trail. There is, here as elsewhere, a sense that Winchester is trying to sell you a tour package to the past.

Do we buy it? For all the appeal of this approach—and The Professor and the Madman is an appealing book—there's something unsettling here: not just the glancing ease of the narrative but the relationship to history it helps build. When Winchester describes horses' "hooves striking sparks from the cobbles as they rushed the victim to the emergency entrance," we are not supposed to ask—not allowed to ask, given no sourcing—whether those sparks were actually there, probably there, or made up. When Winchester passes his pictures through a rosy filter (as he often seems to), we're left with a tourist's inability to do anything but take the story as it comes. What's unsettling is not that readers don't realize these dangers but that they almost certainly do: To allow yourself to enjoy Winchester's books is to accede to the idea that history can be understood passively, as entertainment.

The perils of this approach come to the fore in Winchester's new volume. The Alice Behind Wonderland explores the relationship between Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell (the girl who inspired his famous tale) through the photos he took of her over many years. The setting is once more Victorian Oxford, but the material here is fragile and fraught: A nagging puzzle about Charles Dodgson is the extent to which he was, or wasn't, a pedophile.

And on this matter, Winchester is strangely evasive. He refers dismissively to "all the fuss and bother that surrounds the relationship between Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell." He dwells instead, at length, on the history of amateur photography. Bubbly asides play up characters' charming quirks—we learn, for example, about the Liddell paterfamilias's "enduring fascination with matters of drainage"—but when it comes down to the uncomfortable bits, Winchester zooms ahead, inviting little from the reader but a double take: Dodgson's "utter fascination with all of these girls, his need to picture them with or without clothing, his need to make them happy, to amuse them …" What? He is unsqueamish about raising the sex issue for suspense but finally declares, briskly, that Dodgson's "interest in the Liddell girls during their prepubescent years was unremarkable, in every sense of the word." In a text whose cheery vagueness comes near hagiography (we're told that Dodgson, "a young man of exceptional talent and ability," graduated from Oxford with a First Class in mathematics but did "rather less well" in classics—an unexceptional performance that gets no further elaboration), this dismissal raises uncomfortable questions of its own.

"Volumes have been written about the friendship between Charles Dodgson and the Liddell household," Winchester informs us near the end of The Alice Behind Wonderland. His "Suggestions for Further Reading," which comprises a total of five books, names two. Although you'd barely know it from Winchester's quick summaries, Carroll scholarship has grown fascinatingly divided in the past two decades: On one hand are those who believe there was something shady going on, and, on the other, those who demonstrate, carefully, how Dodgson's conduct might fit with Victorians' ideation of childhood. Both sides make for provocative and illuminating reading. The problem with the author Winchester has become lately isn't his terrifying speed, scholarly looseness, or sometimes-overdone style. It's his commitment to the cause of historical tourism over frank appraisal, pat narrative over uncomfortable paradox. A good book ought to bring its readers down the rabbit hole, into the heart of something strange and wonderful and complex. Winchester, these days, simply offers us escape.