Boring subjects, fascinating books

This is a bit of a misleading title but I wanted to talk about narrative non-fiction – and how strange, little known, weird and esoteric subjects you think couldn’t care less about  … can make the most interesting books of all. Our library catalogue defines it as: “a hybrid literary form, a marriage of the art of storytelling and the art of journalism in an attempt to make drama out of the observable world of real people, real places, and real events”. Often it focuses on the strange byways and figures of history.

Simon Winchester is one of the kings of this sort of thing, and he has a new book coming out soon called Bomb, book and compass (also published as “The man who loved China”). It tells the story of Joseph Needham, a distinguished biochemist at Cambridge University. He fell in love with his wife’s Chinese research assistant, and was sent to China on a government mission during the Second World War, and while there began to research what became the longest, most authoritative work on China ever written in English. He was also an eccentric character: “a nudist, amateur dancer, unabashed singer, socialist and serial adulterer”. (see The National Post review)

Surgeon of Crowthorne
Surgeon of Crowthorne

The first book I read by Winchester was The Surgeon of Crowthorne, another story of an eccentric forgotten by history.  W.C. Minor was one of the keenest volunteers involved in creating the Oxford English Dictionary. He was also a millionaire American Civil War surgeon turned lunatic, imprisoned in Broadmoor Asylum for murder.

Longitude by Dava Sobel is one of the big successes of narrative non-fiction. It’s a wonderful book about the scientific quest to solve “the longitude problem”, and of John Harrison’s 40-year obsession with building a  chronometer. It was made into a tv series starring Michael Gambon and Jeremy Irons.

There’s an if you like guide for Longitude that features some of the best (and strangest) titles around: Mauve: how one man invented a colour that changed the world, Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world and Nathaniel’s nutmeg: how one man’s courage changed the course of history.

2 thoughts on “Boring subjects, fascinating books

  1. Mo-mo 16 July 2008 / 4:20 pm

    Oooh, I agree. “Longitude” is a rollicking good read and “The surgeon of Crowthorne” is a goody too. Truly, real life stories are often more outlandish and unlikely than anything one of the Brontes would have come up with.

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