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Author and visiting SJSU teacher Simon Winchester knows a lot about just about everything


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Simon Winchester has so many stories to tell, it's hard to keep track of them all. Of the British native's 19 books, two explore the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, one took him up the Yangtze River and others took him to India, Korea and the Balkans.

While Winchester was covering the Falklands War as a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, the Argentine government accused him of being a spy and threw him in jail.

He's lived on three continents, and now he's setting up shop in San Francisco to write a book on the 1906 earthquake, slotted to hit the shelves in time for the quake's 100th anniversary. A film crew is following him around the Bay Area while he does research for the book.

As if that weren't enough, he's also the 2004 Lurie Chair in Creative Writing at San Jose State University.

He will be in residence at SJSU for the rest of the spring semester and will appear at two events this Thursday, March 4.

The SJSU position came up entirely by coincidence.

"I quite literally was sitting in my study in Massachusetts last May," Winchester recalls. "And I said to my partner that I should go live on the West Coast if I'm writing this book on the earthquake, and she agreed. Literally five minutes later, the phone rang, and it was either Scott Rice or Paul Douglass of San Jose State University, which, I confess, I had never heard of." SJSU's Center for Literary Arts then offered Winchester the position, and he answered, without a shadow of a doubt, "Yes, of course."

At the 7:30pm reading, Winchester will recite passages from his most recent book, The Meaning of Everything, his second exploration of the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. He first tackled the subject in The Professor and the Madman, which landed him on the bestseller list for more than a year. Both books shed light on the unsung heroes who labored for decades to bring the dictionary to its amazing conclusion.

At present, Winchester is deeply entrenched in the San Francisco book, and he admits the process offers quite a challenge. "It's probably the most difficult book that I've ever done, in that it's telling a story that been told 10,000 times before," he says.

"Somehow, I've got to do it better than it's ever been done. I think the 100th anniversary deserves a really good book. And to write that really good book, to get it all in, getting it all right and putting in its proper context, is a formidable task."

And it doesn't stop there. Since Winchester specializes in unearthing forgotten, unsung men and women who've contributed to the human condition without being given their due, his plan after the San Francisco book is to write the story of Evariste Galois, the whiz-kid French mathematician who died in a duel at age 20.

"After that book, I have no idea what I'll do," he admits. "I hope I'll come up with something, otherwise I'll be out on the streets. I feel reasonably confident I'll think of some idea, but at the moment, I'm really concentrating on San Francisco."

Regarding the earthquake book, local eccentrics are contributing their services to Winchester's research.

"One chap I came across entirely by accident," Winchester says. "He is a treasure-trove like you can never believe--an ex-hippie who used to live in a teepee in Northern California and now he's a waiter. He's been a very helpful source for me."

Simon Winchester appears Thursday (March 4) at noon for a conversation and public Q&A at Spartan Memorial Chapel, SJSU. He appears at 7:30pm for a reading and signing at University Theater, Fifth and San Fernando streets, SJSU. Both events are free.

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From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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