Winchester and the Book That Changed His World

Simon Winchester, Oxford graduate in geology and a multiple best-selling author - including one of the most successful books on geology in recent memory, "The Map That Changed the World" - was, by his own appraisal, not a great practitioner in the field.

"I was living in Uganda, looking for copper, working for a Canadian mining company, and I wasn't very good at it," he told the EXPLORER. "In fact, I wasn't a particularly stellar geologist, either, but I had plenty of spare time to read."

He was 20.

And one of the books he read was James Morris's "Coronation Everest," which recounted the author's work as the London Times' correspondent on the 1953 expedition to Mt. Everest and the serendipity of the reporting that coincided with Queen Elizabeth's coronation; hence the title.

The writing fascinated Winchester, as did the life, so he wrote Morris and, in Winchester's own words, essentially said, "I want to be you."

Morris wrote back and told him that if he was serious about writing, he needed to quit his job that day - not next week, not next month, but that day, which Winchester did - and to return to London and get a job as a reporter, which Winchester thought would be easy.

"I have an Oxford degree," he thought to himself, "I'll get into any place I want."

Here Winchester laughs.

If, however, you don't count the almost year it took him and the countless rejections and humiliations, it was.

So, what was the motivation?

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Simon Winchester, Oxford graduate in geology and a multiple best-selling author - including one of the most successful books on geology in recent memory, "The Map That Changed the World" - was, by his own appraisal, not a great practitioner in the field.

"I was living in Uganda, looking for copper, working for a Canadian mining company, and I wasn't very good at it," he told the EXPLORER. "In fact, I wasn't a particularly stellar geologist, either, but I had plenty of spare time to read."

He was 20.

And one of the books he read was James Morris's "Coronation Everest," which recounted the author's work as the London Times' correspondent on the 1953 expedition to Mt. Everest and the serendipity of the reporting that coincided with Queen Elizabeth's coronation; hence the title.

The writing fascinated Winchester, as did the life, so he wrote Morris and, in Winchester's own words, essentially said, "I want to be you."

Morris wrote back and told him that if he was serious about writing, he needed to quit his job that day - not next week, not next month, but that day, which Winchester did - and to return to London and get a job as a reporter, which Winchester thought would be easy.

"I have an Oxford degree," he thought to himself, "I'll get into any place I want."

Here Winchester laughs.

If, however, you don't count the almost year it took him and the countless rejections and humiliations, it was.

So, what was the motivation?

Many people do work at which they're not particularly stellar, so why wasn't being just an OK geologist with an Oxford seal of approval enough for him?

"I wanted to wander around the world," he said, "and tell stories."

Portrait of a Hero

And eventually he did.

He went to San Francisco to write about its famous earthquake; to Indonesia to write about Krakatoa; to Washington to write about Watergate; and then he came home (twice) to write about the low-born, self-taught, determined and intellectually iconoclastic map maker named William Smith, a man whose story is part Dickens, part Mozart, part Horatio Alger.

His second book on Smith, "The Man, His Map and the Democratization of Geology," is his topic at this All-Convention Luncheon at the upcoming AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Denver.

"He was burdened by a very rigid class structure," said Winchester of Smith. "Working class, an orphan, but he had a fascination with fossils early on."

Smith worked on his aunt and uncle's farm and used pound stones to help her sell butter - the weight used against a pound of butter.

"He then became an apprentice to a surveyor, a good one," Winchester said. "On a survey of a canal, he noticed layers of rock of different types with different fossils and realized he had seen similar layers in the same sort of order with similar fossils and they would be the same layers, only dipping and rising underneath the earth.

"He realized - an amazing epiphany for him," Winchester opined, "he could draw a map that would show the invisible underneath of the country."

For 15 years Smith, entirely on his own, trekked the length and breadth of England and Wales measuring strikes and slopes and all basic elements of geology, and eventually drew his map in 1815, which was the "first-ever geologic map of anywhere."

It bears repeating: the first-ever geologic map of anywhere.

"It was a remarkable, heroic story."

But it was 19th century England, and remarkable heroic, rags-to-riches were not in fashion.

"Because he was lower class, his work was dismissed, it was copied, plagiarized, undersold, published under others' names," Winchester said. "This bankrupted him, sent him to debtor's prison."

When he got out he took work as a journeyman surveyor, only to be rediscovered by a wealthy landowner who asked about his early work. It was only then that Smith's success, good name and connection to his work among the profession's elite was reestablished.

"And he died," Winchester said of this most seminal figure in the profession, "a respected, contentment man."

Changed Lives

Winchester, who has been a foreign correspondent and a frequent guest on The New York Times best seller list and who has written about the Oxford English Dictionary as well as Alice from "Alice in Wonderland," knows this is the kind of tale that doesn't always end happily - for Smith or himself.

He never expected the first book on Smith to sell more than 100 copies. But the story of Smith, Winchester believes, on some level, speaks to modern-day geology and the people who practice it.

"A lot of geologists think they labor away with their hammers and magnifying glasses as sort of unsung heroes," Winchester said, "but I think they are quite heroic."

To talk to Winchester is to hope he keeps talking.

Funny, irreverent, self-deprecating, this best-selling author, this man who became a naturalized American citizen aboard the USS Constitution, talks about his career, including his current gig, with the lightest of touches, complete with tales of luck and wonder and transsexualism.

Yes, you read right.

"As you probably know, James Morris became Jan Morris," a Welsh historian, author and travel writer with whom he has kept a lifelong friendship.

"When I got the job at The Guardian in London, I got a letter asking how, in fact, you get a job at The Guardian. 'Very easy, I said, 'all you do is go to Oxford, get a job in geology, be not very good at it, and then become great friends with a transsexual.'"

He says, unabashedly, coming back to the upcoming convention, that geology is a "noble profession" with committed practitioners and a wonderful, albeit imperfect, history.

And one that - the irony doesn't escape him - can change careers and lives.

"A woman came up to me at a conference years ago and said she was an English major," he said, "but after reading the first Smith book, she changed her major to geology and has never been happier.

She now works for the U.S. Geological Survey.

So on Monday, June 1, when Simon Winchester speaks in Denver about his new book and the beauty of geology, he won't just be talking about William Smith.

"I've always maintained that geology, literally, quite literally, underpins everything," he said, "so is the most important of all the sciences."