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40 books read in this six months, making 75 for the year. This was an experiment in reading all non-fiction, which was rewarding in that I covered a lot of books that I wouldn’t normally read, but on the other hand I didn’t get a wildly different experience from my usual high-fiction diet. The large number of memoirs here shows that I still needed stories of one kind or another.
The Pedant in the Kitchen — Julian Barnes
Eating Animals — Jonathan Safran Foer
Raw Spirit — Iain Banks
Eating Animals was horrifying, even for someone who already knows a lot of this stuff. Raw Spirit was mainly written by Banks’ inner teenager, but he’s still facetiously amusing and put me on to some new whiskies.
Underland — Robert Macfarlane
The Long Spring — Laurence Rose
Ten Million Aliens — Simon Barnes
The South Country — Edward Thomas
Crow Country — Mark Cocker
Underland was a typical Robert Macfarlane book — very self-satisfied, but good at evoking the places he visits. Simon Barnes was much more winning company, with a tour of the entire animal kingdom giving due share to the weirder microscopic phyla. Mark Cocker has the good sense to be a corvid-fancier, and managed to make an East Anglian rooks’ roost a must-see destination.
Fingers in the Sparkle Jar — Chris Packham
I Am, I Am, I Am — Maggie O’Farrell
Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith’s — Brian Aldiss
The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah — Benjamin Zephaniah
A Man Without a Country — Kurt Vonnegut
The Year of Magical Thinking — Joan Didion
Die Harzreise — Heinrich Heine
Wild Swans — Jung Chang
The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise — Peter Abelard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil
Chris Packham’s and Benjamin Zephaniah’s books were both disappointing, the former overly purple and the latter pure Pooter. Maggie O’Farrell’s and Brian Aldiss’s were much better, though both ran out of steam towards the end. Anything by Vonnegut is a little miracle, even if not his best. The Year of Magical Thinking, Wild Swans, and Abelard and Heloise were all very powerful in their very different ways.
The Second World War — Antony Beevor
Eichmann and the Holocaust — Hannah Arendt
Boys in Zinc — Svetlana Alexievich
Age of Revolution — Eric Hobsbawm
A History of the World — Andrew Marr
Another Day of Life — Ryszard Kapuściński
Boys in Zinc and Another Day of Life both come from what seems to be a particularly East European tradition of imaginative non-fiction writing. Both were beautiful and terrifying, whether or not any particular statement included is literally true. Hobsbawm’s book was a much more conventional history, but also creative in its focus on viewing the period through the prism of two events: the French and Industrial Revolutions.
A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip — Alexander Masters
The Invention of Nature — Andrea Wulf
A Life Discarded was a little disappointing — I thought it was overly concerned with the writer rather than the more interesting subject. On the other hand, Wulf’s book does a good job of restoring some attention to the rather neglected figure of Humboldt.
The Greatest Story Ever Told … So Far — Lawrence M. Krauss
The Science of Meditation — Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson
A Mind of its Own — Cordelia Fine
Welcome to the Universe — Neil DeGrasse Tyson et al.
On the Origin of Species — Charles Darwin
Cordelia Fine covers a lot of the same ground as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I’m still reading; often they describe the same psychology experiments. Her tone is amusing, but rather wearing, so I had to take it in small doses. On the Origin of Species was much shorter and tightly-argued than I’d expected, and breaks out into some rather poetic passages towards the end of each chapter.
Krauss (the basic forces of nature) and Tyson (more or less all of astrophysics) provided much the heaviest doses of science, but both were just about within my comprehension. Or at least, the parts that weren’t didn’t stop me from following the rest of the book.
This is Not a Drill — Extinction Rebellion
How to be Right — James O’Brien
Chavs — Owen Jones
Understanding Power — Noam Chomsky
McMafia — Misha Glenn
Women & Power: A Manifesto — Mary Beard
This is Not a Drill was much more varied than I’d expected — it combined often inspiring perspectives of a varied selection of people involved in the protest movement with practical details of the actions they’ve carried out. Chomsky comes across in Understanding Power as even more pleased with himself than Robert Macfarlane, and varying wildly between eye-openingly right and just bonkers. Mary Beard is more reliably right, and much funnier, though her very slender book is light on the manifesto side of things.
Religio Medici etc. — Thomas Browne
On What Matters Vol. 1 — Derek Parfit
Derek Parfit was one of the great moral philosophers, and here produces a convincing synthesis of consequentialist, Kantian, and Rawlsian thinking. All this in a prose style somewhere between the clumsy and the elegant, but always distinctive.
The Essays of George Eliot — George Eliot
Partial Portraits — Henry James
Two nicely interlinked collections of essays — both are mainly surveys of the works of a series of authors, and James includes a fine piece on Eliot.
Coming up next: the plan is for a more balanced range of genres: there’s still a lot of non-fiction on my list I haven’t got round to yet, and novels are back, but also I want to read more short stories, poems and plays. And I’m still very gradually moving through the first chapter of Finnegans Wake.
The last of the Edward Thomas nature books for now, The South Country, has just been posted on Project Gutenberg.
Like The Heart of England, this is not a record of a particular journey, but a series of impressions of, broadly, the area of the Downs.
As with previous books, some of this is rather heavy-going: there are a lot of descriptive passages where Thomas seems determined to identify every dog’s mercury and clematis in sight, but there are some touching portraits of some of the countryside’s wandering folk.
Every so often he breaks out into a lengthy philosophical excursion:
Stay, traveller, says the dark tower on the hill, and tread softly because your way is over men’s dreams; but not too long; and now descend to the west as fast as feet can carry you, and follow your own dream, and that also shall in course of time lie under men’s feet; for there is no going so sweet as upon the old dreams of men.
The nature descriptions are sometimes similarly bold:
The green fire of the larch woods is yellow at the crest. There and in oak and ash the missel thrush is an embodiment of the north wind, summing it up in the boldness of his form and singing, as a coat of arms sums up a history. Mounted on the plume of the top of the tall fir, and waving with it, he sings of adventure, and puts a spirit into those who pass under and adds a mile to their pace.
the turtle-doves whose voices, in the soft lulls after rain, make the earth seem to lie out sleek in the sun, stretching itself to purr with eyes closed.
One evening the first chafer comes to the lamp, and his booming makes the ears tremble with dim apprehension. He climbs, six-legged and slow, up the curtain, supporting himself now and then by unfurling his wings, or if not he falls with a drunken moan, then begins to climb again, and at last blunders about the room like a ball that must strike something, the white ceiling, the white paper, the lamp, and when he falls he rests. In his painful climbing he looks human, as perhaps a man looks angelic to an angel; but there is nothing lovelier and more surprising than the unfurling of his pinions like a magic wind-blown cloak out of that hard mail.
And towards the end, for no particular reason, we have some splendid appreciation of the ballad tradition:
What a poet, too, was he who put that touch into “Bewick and Grahame,” where the father throws down his glove as a challenge to his son and the son stoops to pick it up, and says–
“O father, put on your glove again,
The wind hath blown it from your hand.”
London Labour and the London Poor continues, and we’ve just completed volume 2 (just volume 4 to go now).
This was rather an enjoyable one, dealing first with street-sellers of an impressive variety of items: stealers and restorers of dogs; bird-duffers, who used various tricks to make ordinary birds look more valuable; sellers of second-hand curtains; and so on.
Next came the street buyers and collectors of a similarly diverse range. There were apparently 2-300 full-time collectors of dogs’-dung, mainly for sale to tanners, while others made a living gathering used tea:
An extensive trade, but less extensive, I am informed, than it was a few years ago, is carried on in tea-leaves, or in the leaves of the herb after their having been subjected, in the usual way, to decoction. These leaves are, so to speak, re-manufactured, in spite of great risk and frequent exposure, and in defiance of the law. The 17th Geo. III., c. 29, is positive and stringent on the subject:—
“Every person, whether a dealer in or seller of tea, or not, who shall dye or fabricate any sloe-leaves, liquorice-leaves or the leaves of tea that have been used, or the leaves of the ash, elder or other tree, shrub or plant, in imitation of tea, or who shall mix or colour such leaves with terra Japonica, copperas, sugar, molasses, clay, logwood or other ingredient, or who shall sell or expose to sale, or have in custody, any such adulterations in imitation of tea, shall for every pound forfeit, on conviction, by the oath of one witness, before one justice, 5l.; or, on non-payment, be committed to the House of Correction for not more than twelve or less than six months.”
There’s also a lengthy account of the sewer and night-soil systems. This goes back to the laws of Henry VIII:
“No Goungfermour [night-soil man] shall carry any ordure till after nine of the clock in the Night, under pain of Thirteen Shillings and Four Pence. No man shall cast any urine boles, or ordure boles, into the Streets by Day or Night, afore the Hour of nine in the Night. And also he shall not cast it out, but bring it down and lay it in the Canel, under Pain of Three Shillings and Four Pence. And if he do so cast it upon any Person’s Head,
the Person to have a lawful Recompense, if he have hurt thereby.
By the 19th century, things had become somewhat more civilised:
This night-soil manure was devoted to two purposes—to the manufacture of deodorized and portable manure for exportation (chiefly to our sugar-growing colonies), and to the fertilization of the land around London.
When manufactured into manure it was shipped—in new casks generally, the manure casks of the outward voyage being transformed into the brown sugar casks of the homeward-bound vessels. I was told by a seaman who some years ago sailed to the West Indies, that these manure casks in damp weather gave out an unpleasant odour.
The last main section covers the chimney-sweeps, then just having replaced children with new-fangled machines.
Mechanisation is one area in which the world of London Labour is very recognisable today: there were several trials at the period for new approaches to street cleaning, for example, with cleaning machines which were pulled by horses along the roads, or systems to hose down entire streets with water from fire hydrants, both with consequences for the number of workers required.
Zero hours contracts are also nothing new:
This principle of hiring labourers only for so long as they are wanted, as contradistinguished from the “principle of natural equity,” spoken of by Blackstone, which requires that “the servant shall serve and the master maintain him throughout all the revolutions of the respective seasons, as well when there is work to be done as when there is not,” has been the cause, perhaps, of more casual labour and more pauperism and crime, in this country, than, perhaps, any other of the antecedents before mentioned.
Only 35 books read this semester, mainly due to two whoppers.
King John — William Shakespeare
Romeo and Juliet — William Shakespeare
The Gold Coast — Kim Stanley Robinson
The State of the Art — Iain M. Banks
The Islanders — Christopher Priest
Summerland — Hannu Rajaniemi
The Well of Lost Plots — Jasper Fforde
2312 — Kim Stanley Robinson
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said — Philip K. Dick
Deadeye Dick — Kurt Vonnegut
Always Coming Home — Ursula Le Guin
Europe in Autumn — Dave Hutchinson
Enemies of the System — Brian Aldiss
The Sandman Vol. 3: Dream Country — Neil Gaiman
The Islanders: greatest fictional gazeteer ever written?
A Song of Stone — Iain Banks
Autumn — Ali Smith
Paradise — A. L. Kennedy
Brooklyn — Colm Tóibín
Journey Under the Midnight Sun — Keigo Higashino
This Must Be the Place — Maggie O’Farrell
Thursbitch — Alan Garner
Death of a River Guide — Richard Flanagan
Climbers — M John Harrison
Ansichten eines Clowns — Heinrich Böll
The Poetry of Du Fu — Du Fu
Opened Ground — Seamus Heaney
Pride of place goes to Du Fu’s complete works, translated in six volumes (though admittedly I only read the English versions, not the parallel Chinese). Everything’s in Du Fu: solipsism, compassion, hypochondria, bravery, variety and monotony. In biographical order, his poems are a remarkable experience.
Climbers is probably Harrison’s most “normal” novel, but his similes are still far out:
Smashed black blocks of rock balanced on one another like the remains of some civilisation whose observances grew so monolithic that in the end there was nothing to do but fall back into error, decline, barbarism.
… the neat turf of the Pembroke coastal ranges (where at night artillery fire sounds across St Govan’s Head like doors banging in some row between educated but childish married people).
Robert Fisk on Algeria — Robert Fisk
The Barbary Figs — Rashid Boudjedra
About My Mother — Tahar Ben Jelloun
About My Mother is actually Moroccan, not Algerian, but I include it here as it has a very similar portrait of familial dysfunction. Draw your own parallels with Fisk on national dysfunction….
The History of Lapland — John Scheffer
I also spent quite a bit of time reading the endless London Labour and the London Poor, but since it’s not finished it doesn’t count.
October — China Miéville
Close Encounters of the Furred Kind — Tom Cox
The God Delusion — Richard Dawkins
Begat — David Crystal
King James Bible — Various
As I think Miéville said when we went to hear him, October involved a lot of people going to meetings. Despite that, it gives a good sense of the social background in the months leading up to the revolution. The two companion volumes to the KJV were helpful in drawing out the linguistic and plain weird sides of it, which sometimes intertwine.
I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls
The mouth of strange women is a deep pit
the smell of thy nose like apples
Plan for the next six months is essentially non-fiction only. I might finish off The Overstory, which includes a lot of non-fiction, and I’ll also be taking on the Wake. That’s unlikely to be finished in six months, though.