Of all Simon Winchester's works, I have liked best his books which treat of books and book-people. His latest, The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom (Harper, 2008), falls into that category. I knew little of Winchester's subject (Joseph Needham) his works, or their subject (the history of science in China, broadly speaking) before I began this book, and thus may be blissfully unaware of any omissions or errors, but come away from it thinking that Winchester has offered a timely and well-written biography of a man utterly deserving of one.
Joseph Needham's most important contribution to scholarship is the grand opus Science and Civilisation in China, the first volume of which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1954. Twenty-three more volumes have followed to date, and although the work's pioneer has gone from the scene, publication continues (and seems likely to do so for the forseeable future). The series examines the history of science in China from its early roots, in minute detail (the two most-recently published volumes cover only Metallurgy and Ceramic Technology).
In the course of telling Needham's rather unorthodox life story, Winchester chronicles the bizarre process by which this Cambridge don (trained as a biochemist) came to undertake Science and Civilisation in China, having no professional expertise in either Chinese or history. And while this is interesting, it was Needham's biography itself which held my attention most keenly, perhaps because it can be compared to none other that I can think of. I guess if you're going to be eccentric, you might as well go all the way, and Needham certainly did that - his complicated love life alone serves to boggle the mind, but throwing in the nudism, the socialism, the sometimes problematic political activism, and it's nearly overwhelming.
What comes through most clearly about Needham, though, if all the strange habits are set aside, is the intense appreciation and respect he came to feel for China and its myriad cultural accomplishments, a monument to which his great work is meant to be. An impressive list of these achievements comprises Winchester's first appendix, pp. 267-277.
In general a very lucid and intriguing book. Two minor annoyances: the font chosen was lovely except for the fact that it employs an uppercase I for the numeral 1, making years look strange (I948, &c.), and there are no reference notes, which I would have liked.