Years ago while at Powell’s Book waiting for a guest author to take the speaker’s podium an acquaintance of mine asked me if I had read Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman. After I told him I hadn’t, he went on to tell me how much he enjoyed it while thankfully leaving me with just enough tantalizing details to inspire me to read the book without spoiling anything. Later, after reading Winchester’s book and thoroughly enjoying it, I felt quite indebted to my acquaintance for recommending The Professor and the Madman.
Several years ago, a co-worker recommended to me yet another book by Simon Winchester. He had just finished Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom and could not say enough good things about it. After listening to his favorable review I made a mental note to add the book to my always growing list of books to be read and of course, promptly forgot about it. Fortunately for me, during a recent trip to my public library I found Winchester’s book nestled among the many biographies. Remembering my co-worker’s recommendation I quickly grabbed it. After finishing it a few weeks ago I must say, just like years before, I am once again indebted to someone for recommending a fine book by Simon Winchester.
Published in 2008, The Man Who Loved China tells the story of brilliant English polymath Joseph Needham. While pursing scientific research at Cambridge during the 1930’s Needham would encounter a beautiful and intelligent Chinese graduate student who would quickly become his mistress and help spark his lifelong fascination with all things related to China. After teaching himself Chinese Needham immersed himself in a study of China’s long, fruitful yet overlooked contributions to the sciences. Eventually, at the height of World War II Needham would be sent by the British government to China as a special war-time liaison to the Asian nation’s beleaguered universities. Traveling extensively through non-occupied regions of the country, he would gain an incredible understanding of China’s history, culture and past scientific achievements far surpassing most, if not all of his Western contemporaries.
Like many towering figures, according to Winchester Needham was as flawed as he was great. Intellectually gifted, he would nevertheless write hundreds of pages on needless esoterica such as Chinese alchemy. While technically married, he preferred to treat his marriage as an open relationship, much to the dismay of his more conservative-minded Cambridge colleagues. Like many British academics of his day, he would harbor sympathies and admiration for the perceived leftist and progressive movements of the day, manifesting itself most notably with his affection for the Soviet Union and Communist China. Eventually, like many mid-20th century intellectuals this naive admiration would come back to haunt him after he was tragically duped by Chinese propagandists during the Korean War.
I enjoyed Winchester’s book quite a bit. Although it’s only March, The Man Who Loved China will probably make my “best of” list for 2011. It also taught me how powerful word of mouth of can be when it comes to finding excellent books.