Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book #78: The Man Who Loved China

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

I'm not quite sure how to classify The Man Who Loved China. It's not a biography in the strictest sense of the word, like Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra or David McCullough's Truman. I think this fact is evident in the title, since neither the main title nor the subtitle even includes the name of Joseph Needham. But then again, the book is unequivocally about Joseph Needham. I don't know exactly what the difference is, but there is a difference-- this book feels more like journalism instead of biography. It's richer and more embellished and focuses more on the minute details and quirks of the subject's life. I'm not even sure if that makes any sense.

I've been a fan of Winchester since I read his book The Professor and the Madman about a decade ago (that book is about Dr. W.C. Minor, who is a distant cousin of Eddie's and every time someone in the family reads the book they draw inevitable conclusions to the eccentric, quirky Miners living today). Anyway, I picked up The Man Who Loved China because these days I'm drawn to any and all things China. Needham, a brilliant Cambridge biochemist, fell in love with a Chinese scientist and, by extension, with China. He spent the next 40 years of his life working on a series of books Science and Civilization in China, and spending as much time as he could in the country, both as a diplomat and as a scientist. While I'd picked up the book because I'd admired Winchester's previous works, I was surprised at how it gave me something I'd been eager to gain but didn't know where to find-- a foot in the door about reading about Chinese culture and civilization. After reading half a dozen (more?) adoption memoirs, I feel like I know the process as well as someone who hasn't been through it before can known it, but I know very little about China. This book exposed me to a tiny picture of what life was like in that nation from the 1940s to the end of the 20th century. Winchester also does a lovely job characterizing Needham.

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