“The Meaning of Everything” is not my favorite Simon Winchester book, but that’s kind of like saying La Belle Heaulmiere is not my favorite piece by Rodin.
Both artists have done much more approachable work. Rodin’s “The Kiss” or “Thinker” don’t ask a lot of the viewer. The art is safely evocative of things the viewer is already interested in, and the viewer starts right there with the artist.
Winchester’s “Atlantic” or “Krakatoa” bring the awesome power of nature and the mmercantile history of nations to bear on the reader. Winchester does not have far to take the reader to find interest for the reader is already with him.
With La Belle Heaulmiere, Rodin takes his viewer on a trip. The woman in the sculpture once had everything an artist prizes in a model. Age has taken it all from her, yet Rodin still prizes her and, even up against years of training in perceiving “beauty,” we do as well. It’s not my favorite Rodin piece but it is the one I find the most moving.
Meanwhile, Winchester is making me fall in love with… a dictionary. Something I have used off and on every week of my life since middle school. Something so old it seems beyond excitement. Yet, the Oxford English Dictionary is the work of thousands of volunteers over many decades. It’s the life’s work of a few dedicated editors. It is a magnificent piece of scholarship that I’ve frankly used and never taken heed of.
It’s a testament to my respect for Winchester that I got through the first section. It was a hard slog, but the subject could hardly be drier. Reading a dictionary is, after all, a euphemism for boredom. As I approach the end of this book (albeit in audio form), Winchester is living up to every expectation I have of his writing, and I am getting excited over a dictionary.
If you don’t know Winchester’s work, don’t start with this one. By all means, get to this one eventually.