Tag Archives: Simon Winchester

Childhood’s End

I believe it was C. S. Lewis who wrote that in reading autobiographies he always found the earliest years the most interesting.. In my experience the same applies to biographies; what made the person famous enough to merit a biography—auto or not—started in the innocent years. I try not to extrapolate from my own case because I never read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass until I was in college. (It was only in college that I first saw Mary Poppins as well.) Beloved childhood classics weren’t really part of my childhood. Like many adults, then, I wonder who was Alice, really? Everyone knows there was an Alice but what do we know of her inner life? What’s the story with Lewis Carroll?

In my mind Simon Winchester is an historian associated with large pictures. Maps of the entire world, huge volcanoes, big oceans—the meaning of everything. I only discovered his The Alice behind Wonderland by accident. As soon as I spied it I knew I’d have to read it. As I expected, the younger years are most intriguing. Those of us who cut our classical teeth under the tutelage Liddell and Scott may not realize said Liddell was the father of Alice. But it’s not the father that impresses so much as the daughter. And Charles Dodgson himself—the cast of characters is compelling even with little action beyond photography and story telling. Yet we’re riveted. What was the dynamic that led a bachelor cleric to write a world classic for children?

Who doesn’t, even in less-than-ideal circumstances, long for the carefree days of childhood? Looking at photos of our younger selves evokes a world accessible only in our heads. The world that made us who we’ve become. Winchester bases this brief study on perhaps the most controversial photograph of Alice Liddell that Charles Dodgson ever took. Even the story of wet-plate collodion photography allures the reader with its promise of stories untold. We know little of why the Liddell family grew apart from Dodgson, so much so that the adult Alice didn’t even attend the funeral of the man who’d made her an immortal. What happened here? When we find out we’ll perhaps be a step closer to finding out why becoming an adult means sacrificing a child. We may be a step closer to finding a girl known to most of the world simply as “Alice.”

Apocalypse Then

Krakatoa Sometimes everything blows up in your face. Literally. Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa has been on my reading list for years. Boys seem to have a fascination with volcanoes that they never outgrow, and given the world-wide implications of Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption, it is a tragedy that keeps me ever curious. We live on an angry planet. I know that’s projecting agency on nature, but like thunderstorms, to a human sensibility, volcanoes are raging phenomena. As Winchester points out, many indigenous cultures in the “ring of fire” consider volcanoes either gods or messages from the divine world. Honestly, I didn’t read Krakatoa to find out about religion, but it was there nevertheless. For human beings, it has an unparalleled explanatory power.

Krakatoa caused a stint of global cooling after its nineteenth-century eruption, leading to failed crops throughout much of the world, and perhaps played into larger political issues that would stress a world already attempting to cope with fast changes in technology. The story of the volcano is fascinating enough, but the religious dimension, it seems, played itself out more than just in a Gilligan’s Island sort of way. Despite what analysts say, people take their religious beliefs very seriously. So when I reached the end of the eruption, I wondered how Winchester was going to spin this book out for another fifty pages. It turns out that among the effects of the volcano was a religious rebellion. The East Indies, as they were called, were under Dutch colonial rule. This led to a bit of tension with the native Muslims (Islam has long been a major religion in Indonesia). As Winchester points out, the Islam in the region before the eruption was a syncretistic, almost laissez faire, faith. It blended with Hinduism and local beliefs, and even tolerated the Christian Dutch.

Symbolically, or literally, after the explosion that killed thousands, a religious movement that had been waiting for a sign came to life. A more strict Muslim sect saw the events as a predicted display of divine anger. A short-lived rebellion broke out, cut off by Christian repeating rifles, that led to a more strict version of Islam in the region. Although Winchester doesn’t linger on this too long—he is writing about a natural disaster after all—it does raise many very human responses. In the event of a cataclysm, science is cold comfort. We may rationalize, but human beings also feel. And it is religion that will attempt to answer for that pit in your stomach or that worry in your head. That’s what it does best. Science tells us that we can’t really stop volcanoes—we are too small and the planet too overwhelming. Religion, on the other hand, offers a grip on the very forces behind cataclysm—imagined or not. Although seeing natural disasters as divine punishment is never reasonable it is, in the words of a famous philosopher, human, all too human.