Before he started working on "Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection," author Simon Winchester had limited experience with body parts. That's not to say he had no experience.
"Looking back in my history, there was this six-month episode when I was very intimately involved with skulls," he says in an interview.
It was in the early '60s, and he needed money for his first trip to America from his native U.K. He took a job in a mortuary.
"The mortician reminded me, if you dissected a rabbit (in school) you can do this. Humans are basically rabbits without ears," he says. "We always had to remove the brain, weigh it, sometimes extract the pituitary. I did become fascinated. And it reminded me of it when I began the book."
"Skulls" focuses (as does an iPad app of the same name) on the collection of Dudley, a colorful Englishman who has made skull collecting his obsession. He has more than 2,000 on display in a spare bedroom in his home; it is probably the largest private collection in the world. At least that anyone is talking about.
"We think so," Winchester says. "He thought so. Academics and zoo people we met have said so. We thought that by putting this book out there, and this app, it'd generate someone from Nebraska (to think), 'Wait, I've got 10 times as many.' But so far, no one has said anything."
Winchester has visited the room at Dudley's home two or three times. Now he brings readers along and provides a narration that any museum guide would envy.
We learn about skulls and their parts, of horns, teeth, beaks, bills. Our further education includes the science and pseudoscience of skulls, the skull in art, the iconography of skulls, the skull in Mexico.
Winchester's writing does more than just flesh out "Skulls" — it is reason in itself to buy the book. But then you come to the photos by Nick Mann, more than 300 of them, of storks, armadillos, seals and badgers. Even a two-headed cow. And hundreds more.
"What we wanted to do was make sure every skull was different from every other skull" in the book, Winchester says. "I think we achieved that."
William Hageman is a Tribune Lifestyles reporter.
Winchester will give a talk and video presentation about "Skulls," followed by a Q&A and book signing, at 6 p.m. Jan. 16 at the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium in the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St., Chicago.
By Simon Winchester, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 240 pages, $29.95