Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories – Simon Winchester

Superb set of insights into the Atlantic Ocean from (geology graduate) Simon Winchester. Themed chapters covering man’s awareness and attitude to, exploration and exploitation of this most familiar ocean, the land and lava beneath it, the air above and the other creatures that live in and around its waters.

Engaging and erudite. A big book but a speedy read. Lots of maps – which you don’t always get in this kind of book.

Author webpage: Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories – Simon Winchester

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom – Simon Winchester

Fascinating account of the life of Joseph Needham, a Cambridge academic biologist who became an authority on China and the history of it’s culture and science; and an equally fascinating and unusual insight into China’s jack knife social, political and cultural changes since the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Amazon link: The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom – Simon Winchester

The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans – Simon Winchester

A fascinating account of the Balkans during the 1990s, combining nostalgic accounts of prior holidays in more tranquil times with analysis of the complex political, historical, ethnic and military mix in play in the region at the close of the 20th century, when journalist and writer Simon Winchester travelled from Vienna to Istanbul.

There are no easy answers, but there is plenty of digestible analysis and first hand accounts, from Winchester and the ordinary Serbs, Croats, Bosnians Kosovans, Montenegrans, Albanians, Macedonians, Turks, Slavs, Gypsies, Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Communists … he meets, as well as his encounters with NATO forces, British military, NGOs and aid groups.

Amazon.co.uk link: The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans – Simon Winchester

Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles – Simon Winchester

A spur of the moment purchase at the St Giles Cripplegate summer fete, this book is a gem.

I must confess a general ignorance about Korea, other than random facts such as “It’s the sticky out bit between China/Russia and Japan”, “It is split into North Korea (“baddies”) and South Korea (“goodies”)” and “M*A*S*H was set in the Korean War (and not the Vietnam War as a lot of people assume)”. Having read Simon Winchester’s account of his walk from the island of Cheju in the far south to Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone that forms the frontier between North and South Korea, I feel rather more enlightened, and wondering how best to get my head around developments since 1988 when this book was written.

The route was inspired by the journey made by shipwrecked Dutch sailors in 1688, who became the first Westerners to enter and leave the Kingdom of Korea. As he travels, Winchester provides details of the history, culture and beliefs of the people of Korea since then, and develops insights into how these enabled them to survive the 20th century events of invasion, international, cold and then civil war and to create a thriving economy (Daewoo, Hyundai, Samsung), in the South at least.

Winchester is quite clear that he would have loved to have continued his walk all the way through the demilitarised zone and gained comparable exposure to the people and places of the North. For my part, reading his account has given me the idea of adding another destination(s) to my list (as Catherine observed: going for another country in the Axis of Evil).

Amazon.co.uk link: Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles – Simon Winchester

The Surgeon of Crowthorne – Simon Winchester

Easy-reading account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the contribution made by the mysterious Dr William Chester Minor to this Herculean task. It is all the more fascinating, and sad, given that Dr Minor carried out all his work from his cell in Broadmoor (another Victorian innovation, then, as now, Broadmoor was an “Asylum for the Criminally Insane”) where he was paying a life sentence for murder.

Buy it: Amazon link