WE recently had dinner with writer Simon Winchester while he was in Sydney spruiking his latest book, The Man Who Loved China . It was also a celebration of his birthday, which is tomorrow. He shares his day with Brigitte Bardot, Confucius and my mother.
Probably his most famous book is The Surgeon of Crowthorne , which is being made into a film, possibly starring Daniel Day- Lewis. When the book about the compiler of the Oxford English Dictionary was first published it was accompanied by a desktop calendar, with a word a day taken from the dictionary, ranging from olla podrida ( a hotchpotch) to horripilation ( goose flesh). Tomorrow’s birthday word is capybara which, according to Simon’s mother, was the first word he said, aged three, on a visit to the zoo, when he fell in love with the largest extant rodent quadruped, which he describes as looking like a walking bundle of Shredded Wheats, a gentle and shy creature vaguely allied with the guinea pig. So taken with the word, he once called a company he started Capybara; not, as it turned out a happy choice: it went belly up, as they would say in animal terms.
We’ve had a wonderful plethora of writers in all the capital cities recently and it has been enlightening listening to some of them, but there’s one thing I find deeply puzzling: why do publishers change the title of a book, depending on the sensitivities or otherwise of the good citizens of various countries?
Canadian author Lawrence Hill, for example, wrote a book called The Book of Negroes . It’s a chilling account of the slave trade. In the US it goes by the name Someone Knows My Name.
I came across The Man Who Loved China in my local bookshop, Oscar and Friends, and fell upon it with a howl of joy. My husband grabbed it and was glued to it for weeks, reading every word at least twice, so I haven’t yet read it but am taking it away with me to read on the plane on holiday. It’s the biography of an Englishman named Joseph Needham who fell in love with a Lu Gwei- djen and went to live with her in China, where he wrote his famous series on the history of science in China and how advanced the Chinese were in their discoveries and inventions. Everyone’s very into this country at present; China is the new black.
What I didn’t realise when I bought the book was that Oscar and Friends had the book shipped out from the US. In England and the Commonwealth countries it is a garish paperback and the title is Bomb, Book & Compass . Yuck. It’s just not Simon.
It is hard work spruiking a book. When I asked him how it was going, there was a silence while he ran for the dictionary: he’d never heard the word spruiking before. It is described as ‘‘ delivering a harangue to promote something’’, origin not known, but peculiar to Australia.