THE BLOG
11/20/2012 11:34 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

There Will Always Be an England: What's With These Skulls, Anyway?

There will always be an England. Let's just take Alan Dudley, whose staggering skull collection reveals itself in its strange entirety. He's the brains if you will behind the book, Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection, by international bestselling author, Simon Winchester.

As a bit of an introduction, Winchester loves eccentrics: They crop up all over the place in his terrific nonfiction. The Professor and the Madman stars two eccentric loners at the very least -- specifically, the Oxford professor as well as the madman, an American Civil War veteran whose fragile emotional state (early PTSD, to be sure) lands him in a mental institution in Washington, D.C. The professor and the madman work together to give birth to the Oxford English Dictionary. Another Englishman, quite the eccentric, who charmed Winchester is Joseph Needham, an odd Cambridge biochemist who in his spare time loved folk dancing and nudism. It was his passion to travel to the most far-flung corners of China to prove that most of mankind's most important technical advances were born in Asia.

Thus was born Simon Winchester's great book, The Man Who Loved China. Winchester's books are full of these glorious oddballs who have given a massive amount of knowledge and achievement to modern civilization, thanks to their hobbies and passions. Simon Winchester loves flushing them out and making them public.

Now, back to Alan Dudley. Alan Dudley needs his day job as a wood veneer specialist for luxury automobile interiors. He works and lives in the Midlands, in England. Simon Winchester sniffed out his hobby, and so begat the book, Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection. He collects skulls -- thousands of animal, reptile and bird skulls. We all know a collector or two -- corkscrews, shotglasses, college mugs, baseball caps, whatever. But Dudley's collection consists of thousands of skulls, which he's amassed over the past several decades. One of the best skull collections in the world, it bests many museums and universities. And he keeps those skulls in a spare room in his house.

It's not just a pretty photography collection of a bunch of animal skulls. (The talented photographer in this case is Nick Mann.) This is a Simon Winchester book, after all. What's remarkable here is the discussion of skulls, and there's so much to discuss. Why are skulls the symbol of death, of evil? Why is the skull the international danger sign? Why has it always been so? What do skulls reveal about authority, about fashion, about history, about art and pop culture? What could skulls possibly tell us about politics and why have charlatans flocked around the study of the skull for centuries? Why do skulls fascinate us? Isn't it eerie to note how closely our skulls resemble those of Lowland Gorillas?

Writers Bloc presents Simon Winchester, November 28, 7:30 pm. at the Goethe Institute, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, visit writersblocpresents.com.