This book (it’s at least the 5th one of his that I’ve read) reminds me what a wonderfully accessible, agreeable, and engaging writer Simon Winchester is. Look at his two books on the OED for proof. Or the one on William Smith and the birth of geology. Or the one that attempts, quite successfully, really, to be a full history of the Atlantic. I don’t much care for long explications of continental drift – I need to see it You Tubed on a globe — but the particularly appealing parts of The Atlantic revolve around the great cities that border it – and thrive by it. (It started me thinking about Lisbon, from which one of my forebears left for the new world some 180 years ago. Time for a visit?)
Winchester follows the Yangtze River from its mouth all 4,000-odd miles up to its source in Tibet. For him, it’s a journey backwards in time, especially after he gets upstream of the Three Gorges (just then becoming the site of the monster dam).
So much I didn’t know! So much he helps me understand! Even though his journey was 20 years ago and China has been through so many vasty changes since, the observations ring true for me. I think especially of the ceaseless and careless pollution he sees, the corruption and weary cynicism, the utter wastefulness, the stunning poverty, and the exquisite beauty of the land.
During the trip, Winchester often writes as if he were encountering people and things as a solo traveler. At other times he remembers to acknowledge his amazing guide and translator, a women who fears nothing, it seems, except loss of face. It’s a pity he couldn’t bring himself to be more considerate – and consistent. Without her, it seems as though he’s be lost much of the time. Or in jail.
Winchester’s journey has a special resonance for me: before WWII, my Uncle Percy was a captain on a Butterfield & Swire ship that traded up the Yangtze. Percy’s letters home somehow survived the vagaries of history and were the basis of a short memoir my Mother wrote about his life. I should dig it out and remind myself.
And no, that wouldn’t be available on Amazon — and anyway, why are you even thinking of getting any books at all from Amazon? http://www.indiebound.com