Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

“BIRDSONG”

August 24, 2021

The novel by Sebastian Faulks (1993)

I picked up this novel of the First World War in the airport on my way to Australia in 1997. I got so wrapped up in it that I finished it at dawn in a grass hut on the beach on the tiny island of Ko Phi Phi in The Andaman Sea. I immediately wrote in my diary: “Jack and Stephen, and my grandfather Arthur, died tragic and unnecessary deaths in Flanders Fields so long ago. It’s up to us , their vastly more fortunate descendants and beneficiaries, to live the good, and perhaps even great, lives that were so cruelly snatched away from them. As from tomorrow I’ll…..”

Birdsong’ has got it all: lust, curiosity, despair, love, courage, terror, kindness, puzzlement, characters one really comes to care about, and an ending worthy of the whole. I don’t think you’ll ever forget it. I certainly can’t.

THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS

August 7, 2021

Of the 5000 plus novels I must have read in my 80 years as a reader only one thriller gets the ultimate 5 -star accolade “Riddle of the Sands” by Erskine Childers, published first in 1903. I just love that story of a couple of Edwardian yachtsmen who sail in their tiny ‘Dulcibella’ to the Friesian islands off the North German coast only to discover evidence that the Kaiser is planning to invade England. It’s a great read, not least because Childers had sailed up though the islands himself in a tiny boat, and on into the Baltic. The log of that intrepid cruise provided all the tang and colour to make readers feel they are aboard too, reefing sails, getting lost in the maze of lonely channels, running aground, and kedging off again on a rising tide. I’ve read it half a dozen times at least, and I’ll read it again. It’s better than a sailing holiday. Really. It never palls.

Back about 2000 I was poking about in a bookstall at the Southampton Boat Show when I saw a biography of the author [ “Erskine Childers” by Jim Ring; John Murray, 1996] and bought it because I vaguely knew that Childers had led an extraordinarily adventurous life which ended with his execution in 1922, by the Irish Government. How many men have written best-selling novels, been decorated for gallantry by the Royal Navy, run guns for the IRA , advised several Prime Ministers including Lloyd George, and Eamonn de Valera, and been shot as a traitor? So I bought the book, which at once became, and remains, my favourite biography of all the many thousands I must have read. Jim Ring, not a professional writer, became obsessed with Childers and his colourful life, and has painted a portrait worthy of the man. As a soldier, sailor, writer, patriot, airman, lover, politician, yachtsman, and man of principle Childers led the fullest life imaginable. John Buchan, who knew a bit about such things, said of Childers: “No revolution ever produced a nobler or purer spirit”. If you read The Riddle of the Sands first, then Jim Ring’s biography of its author, I bet you won’t forget either.

THE BOY WITH NO SHOES

July 26, 2021

BY WILLIAM HORWOOD

   Moved beyond words, I finished this novel in tears, hands shaking. And this is the second time I have read it. It goes alongside “Under Milk Wood” and “Birdsong” as the only three fictional works of genius which I know of written in the English language during my life of 80 odd years.

         Like any work of genius there is no knowing or understanding how it came to be – for that is surely the definition of  ‘genius’ – it is something incomprehensible which touches us from beyond. But the author tells us this  in his Front-piece note:

         “When I was 34 and had been iller than I knew for two long years, my recovery began in the strangest and most magical of ways. I woke one day from dreaming and saw myself when very young, as clearly as in a black and white Kodak photograph. I saw how desperately the little boy I once was had needed to talk to someone in a world where no one wanted to listen. I decided there and then to travel back in time and let myself as an adult  listen to the child. This book and my final healing is the result of that listening over very many years.”

         Abandoned by a father he briefly knew and brought up by a mad sadistic mother, Jimmy manages to find some comfort and solace from others in the small seaside town in which he grew up on the Kent coast (Deal): Mr and Mrs Bubbles; Granny (unforgettable); Mr Boys who taught him to read – and gave him  a copy of  “The Children’s Encyclopaedia”; the ‘African Gentleman’;  and Mr Wharton the teacher who turned failures into successes by telling his new class : “You are all experts in the English Language”  and showing them that the syllabi for all of their approaching O-levels were crammed into a  few short pages . And then there was his first touching love affair with Harriet – which was tragically ended by his brutal mother. And the finale when, as a lost man of 30, he managed to re-unite Mrs Bubbles with her twin in France – who she had imagined had been killed in the war forty years earlier. And of course there is the darkest of dark villains – Captain Flax at his grammar school.

         We all need to feel , don’t we, that when we grow up we can  be happy and lead graceful lives – and if our parental role models do neither we must look elsewhere. In hunter-gatherer groups children are brought up by the group as a whole and often identify with mentors other than their biological parents [because the biological connection isn’t realised . See “Reindeer Moon” by Elisabeth Marshall Thompson for such a childhood ].

         Thank you so much William Horwood for a work of art that will endure for centuries!

WATERFALLS OF STARS

July 10, 2021

BY ROSEANNE ALEXANDER

It is impossible to describe magic which, of its very nature, is inexplicable. But ‘Waterfalls of Stars’ by Roseanne Alexander (2017) is magic from beginning to end. It’s about a girl who half loved a boy who was already helplessly in love with a wild island off the coast of Pembrokeshire in West Wales. When he was appointed to be its warden — provided he got married within ten days — Roseanne had to hurriedly make up her mind whether to share his dream, which certainly wan’t hers, or snatch it away. Thank goodness for us she succumbed and fell so completely under the island’s spell that she could hardly bear to leave it, even for hours, for the next ten years. Indeed she loved Skomer so much that she has vowed never to return, in case it breaks her heart.

Instead she has has written a lyrical love-letter to Skomer and all its wild creatures which she has kindly shared with us. It is no exaggeration to say it ranks alongside Dylan Thomas’ ‘Under MIlk Wood’ and R.M Lockley’s ‘The Island’ as a vivid and unforgettable evocation of coastal life in Wales. What more can I say except that everyone into whose hands I have thrust it couldn’t put it down, and intends to re-read it — as I have done twice already. It just gets better.

Britain has so very little true wilderness left but Skomer, set amidst its fierce tide-races and overfalls is an unforgettable reminder of what we have so nearly lost. With its 40,000 breeding puffins, 600, 000 breeding Shearwaters, innumerable seals, Kittiwakes, Elegugs and Razorbills, it is a wonder we must preserve at all costs in case it goes under to another foolish and unnecessary oil-tanker tragedy like the 1996 Sea Empress disaster outside the oil-terminal at Milford Haven, not twenty miles away. But if Roseanne’s love letter was to be Skomer’s only epitaph I cannot imagine a better. Her text is as unforgettable as her title [Seren Books, 2017, £12.99, http://www.serenbooks.com ] .Do yourself a favour: buy it, read it and hand it on.

HISTORY WITHOUT SCIENCE IS HOPELESS.

June 26, 2021

In his famous essay on ‘The Two Cultures” CP Snow pointed to the yawning divide in British Culture between Science and the Humanities. It’s still there, just as crippling as it was 60 years ago.

I was reminded of this when I started reading “The Boundless Sea – a human history of the oceans” by David Abulafia a professor of history at Cambridge University (Penguin 2019), a book which has attracted extravagant praise as well as The Wolfson History Prize for 2020. It’s a subject that has fascinated me since, as a boy, I read Thor Heyerdahl’s account of the Kon Tiki expedition — his raft trip across the Pacific in 1947 to explore his hypothesis that Polynesia might have been settled from South America.

That hypothesis gradually sank into disrepute following accumulating anthropological and genetic evidence suggesting that Polynesia was in fact settled not from the East but from the North by navigators of Asian descent. But then in 2020 came better DNA evidence showing that at least some South Americans had arrived in the Marquesas with their plants around 1150 AD. What has Abulafia to say about this evidence? On p 29 he writes that it:”… indicates that Polynesians from the Marquesas interbred with people from Columbia around 1150, most plausibly suggesting that Polynesians reached and returned from South America bringing Columbians and their seeds and tubers along with them.”

Heyerdahl’s balsa raft Kon Tiki sailing West from South America to Polynesia down the West Wind Drift powered by the Coriolis Force . Notice she’s got the wind behind her, as well as a current of 50 miles a day driven by the wind. Courtesy the Heyerdahl Museum in Norway.

What? Doesn’t Abulafia understand the winds and currents which would make such a hypothetical voyage thousands of times more difficult than Heyerdahl’s journey? Surely he understands the Coriolis Force which drives the Great West Wind Drift and indeed nearly all the voyages of exploration and trade around the globe in the days of sail?

So I skip to the Index, all of 63 pages long containing no less than 9,500 entries . No mention of Coriolis Force, and only one brief one to Trade winds, but not in the Pacific Ocean. But what about the maps, of which there are dozens and dozens? The Oceanic waters are entirely blank, no sign of the all-important currents and winds which drove and circumscribed all navigators in the days of sail.

One can only conclude that Abulafia either doesn’t know, or doesn’t understand the bearing of Science on the Oceans, a bit steep when he is writing a “Human history of the Oceans”. It’s like a geography text-book which omits all mention of mountains and rivers. The result is a timid history without any sweep or penetration, just another record of ‘One damn thing after another’ like his earlier book on the Mediterranean “The Great Sea” which I did manage to finish — just.

One could be more forgiving if Abulafia hadn’t been so condescending towards Heyerdahl , referring to him as a “self publicist” unworthy of his fame in Norway. Thor Heyerdahl wasn’t a timid academic, he was brave man who risked his life to explore his own imaginative idea — which as it happens, — turns out to be substantially right.

Abulafia’s egregious failure illustrates the folly of attempting history without comprehending or even taking notice of Science. And the extravagant praise for his book from other historians, and the award of the Wolfson Prize, can only suggest that such incestuos myopia is widespread in British academe. How can we rely on them when they must be writing for each other, and not for us?

But there’s a more general point here. It’s much easier to spot what is wrong with an argument than to spot what is missing from it. For instance the Scottish National Party is aiming to take Scotland out of the UK, without recognising that Scotland, with its 6000 miles of remote coastline, is indefensible on its own, but secure as part of a united island. How foolish. We islanders all need to sit up and take notice of that!

BOOKWORMS ARE IT!

February 22, 2021

The biggest fallacy in Education is that because you have a degree you are ‘Educated’; the second biggest that because you have not, you are not. I argue here that a bookworm may become more than 500 times more learned than a graduate .

Thinking of all kinds works through “The Association of Ideas” . Thus a new idea is valuable in proportion to the number of ideas in your head already, with which you can associate it, potentially leading to new insights. Thus the value of reading a new book is roughly proportional to the number you have read already. If you have read 100 say there are roughly 100 times 99 (divided by 2 to avoid double-counting) or roughly 5000 potential Associations to be made between them whereas if you have read 200 that number rises to 200 times 199 (divided by 2) or roughly 20,000. In general then the value of your knowledge lies in proportion to the number of Associations you can make, which rises with the Square of its size. This is a profound but unfamiliar truth, and the basis of my argument.

Now a typical university undergraduate will need to read something like 2 books/course, which comes to between 100 and 200 over an entire degree. A book-worm on the other hand, who reads 2 books every week, reads 2 times 52 times 50 or roughly 5000 books over the course of 50 years. Taking the above-mentioned Square into account that implies that the bookworm finishes up (5000/200) squared, or 625 times more learned than a graduate; which makes my point.

There are of course qualifications. If the bookworm reads only detective novels, or the undergraduate only critiques of Shakespeare plays, neither will become Learned. Some breadth is assumed, the more the better. I would guess most bookworms, because they have no imposed constrictions on their appetites, would be more widely read, generally, but not always , reinforcing the case.

Isn’t that surprising, and interesting? The most learned members of society are not university graduates, not even university professors (of which I am one), but possibly unqualified people who have always got their noses in a book.

What are we to make of all this? I would suggest:

One has no chance of becoming Learned unless one is a life-long bookworm, degree or not.

It must be a primary aim of both parents and educators to see that their charges become bookworms.

A great library in every suburb and school will be an indispensable measure of its Civilization.

All measures which curb or kill Natural Human Curiosity( the main driver of reading), such as bad teaching, or over-examining, must be curbed immediately before it causes life-long damage. What on Earth is the point of turning out qualified but unlearned graduates?

There will be plenty of critics of ‘unfocussed reading’, of mere ‘bookworming’, especially from the Academic professions. All I can say is that I haven’t come to my view lightly. Having made a twenty year study of how successful Science is done, I found it was Breadth that mattered, far more then ‘genius’, for which there was little evidence. Breakthroughs appeared to come mainly from those who could Associate ideas which previously appeared to have no connection. For instance the basis of the modern world is Electro-magnetic Radiation , a concept only born when Hans Christian Oersted (1820), reading about storms at sea, first realised that Electricity and Magnetism must be connected.. If you want to follow the argument you might read my book “Thinking for Ourselves” described elsewhere on this site (under ‘My books’ Category). Here is an excerpt from that book entitled ‘THE VALUE OF LEARNING:

https://mjdisney.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/ValueLearning.pdf

So here’s to readers everywhere! Only you can become truly Learned , and capable of leading, or perhaps we should say ‘reading’, our way on up to new realms of thought…

READS OF A LIFETIME

October 24, 2020

Aren’t we all woven out of stories and dreams? I know I am. A people is not much more than the stories it believes in — however true or untrue they may be. For me the story teller sitting by the stone-age fire bewitching his or her companions with tales of mystery wonder and imagination is the core human being — the maker of us all.

I know that I myself have been largely made out of the roughly 12,000 books I must have read, and it seems a pity not to hand the very very best of them on, which is what I do here — some 120 fascinators drawn from 80 years of reading at about 4 hours a day. Here I can say very little about each book but I hope to review some of my very favourites in later posts.

I also intend to share my three best library experiences: Kings Norton Public Library (Birmingham); Worthington Public Library (Ohio) and The Raman Institute Library in Bangalore (India). Enjoy.

My list can be read at:

https://mjdisney.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/bookfavs2.pdf