LAST LOOK

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - JANE FRASER

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.

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