Posts Tagged ‘Alexander von Humboldt’

On holiday reading

April 13, 2019

What sort of things do you take away to read when you go on holiday? I’m thinking about this because I’ll be off on a walking holiday soon, and it seems that every year I find it harder to decide what to take with me to read…

Sometimes I’m attracted by the idea of easy reading, re-acquainting myself with something I’ve read before. Then I remember that in my student days, when I had to ration myself because I was backpacking and there was only room for one book, that I’d save a real doorstop of a book especially for the summer holidays. Some of the reading from those heady days: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, which I remember buying in Amsterdam, because I’d run out of things to read; War and Peace; Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Svejk; Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; Dostoevsky’s The Idiot; the two volumes of Yevgenia Ginsburg’s gulag memoirs (there’s light holiday reading for you!); Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don; Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz… The other thing I remember about holidays is I used to treat myself to Le Monde every day, because they used to have special summer series, lengthy articles on a historical or cultural theme that ran for a week or two.

So I look at the shelves and there are plenty of thick tomes awaiting my attention: shall it be one of them? The problem is that, in my younger days, holiday reading was always fiction, so a long novel fitted the bill; nowadays there’s far less fiction I’m interested in, and the weighty volumes of history or about religion are not quite the stuff of holiday relaxation. Stymied again.

What usually happens is that I start a pile a couple of weeks before I go, as I’m gradually gathering together all my other kit. The pile of books gets bigger and bigger until the day before I go, when I have to finally plump for a couple of them to last me the ten days or fortnight that I’ll be away. So, they get packed, and then I’ll find myself buying something far more interesting in a local bookshop while I’m away: I can never pass up the chance to scour French bookshops for things that aren’t going to make it into English.

On my current pile (awaiting weeding) for the upcoming holiday: R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – novels set in the Great War – and the Selected Writings of Alexander von Humboldt. I’m also contemplating Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth, which I know has had mixed reviews, and Jan Potocki’s Travels.

I’d be interested to know if I’m the only one with such dilemmas, and how any of my readers make their choices.

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Buccaneer Explorer: William Dampier’s Voyages

July 5, 2016

516mwIMxYxL._AC_US160_I’m still unclear exactly what a pirate or a buccaneer is, even after reading this book, and it’s evident that the boundaries in the past were a lot more fluid and vague than we think nowadays. A good deal of William Dampier‘s career was official, and a certain amount of it was not. What comes out from this book, an abridgement of several that he wrote, is that he was an interesting and learned character, as well as, for someone allegedly piratical, a touch cowardly… He seems not to have been a good commander of men, and a fairly disastrous privateer, although some of these aspects of his life are rather open to dispute among those that research such things.

The book I read is a reprint of an earlier Folio Society volume that annoyingly only reproduced three of the five maps accompanying that volume.

Dampier travelled widely in the lawless and not very knowledgeable late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; he’s the first recorded Englishman to have set foot on and recorded his visit to New Holland, the landmass that we now call Australia.

The most striking thing about this pirate – if he really was one – is his observant nature: he observes and describes carefully, in a scientific manner, all sorts of unknown flora and fauna he encounters in various lands whilst travelling: sloths, alligators, various sorts of monkey, hummingbirds… there is much new knowledge in what he records, which was taken seriously by savants back home. He discovered, by observing its production, what cochineal really is. And, it is clear that, in the days before Harrison‘s famous clocks and the later work on longitude, that what he was best at was navigating; various of his charts and observations were in use long after his time. His writings on navigation and his other scientific research influenced later scientists like Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt. He also wonders about time zones…

Dampier was living in very interesting literary times, too, and his accounts of his voyages certainly seem to have precipitated the eighteenth century interest in travel writings and stories of desert islands; he encounters Alexander Selkirk, whose true story is the origin of Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe; shortly after that novel came Swift‘s Gulliver’s Travels. The line between true and invented was very blurred in those days. Not a terribly exciting read, but fascinating from a number of angles.

On maths and science

April 6, 2016

51F6wH7UHeL._AA160_ 51h6BFLBjiL._AA160_ 51PtUSpds0L._AA160_ 51r2u2D8-tL._AA160_I wouldn’t want any of my readers who is a mathematician or scientist (and I hope there are some of you!) to get the impression that these are subjects I am indifferent to, even though my knowledge is pretty scant: I do have O-Level Maths, and was one of the very first students to study what was called ‘modern maths’ in the sixties, and I also have what was quaintly known as ‘General Science’ O-Level (ie very basic).

Some of the most interesting conversations I used to have as a teacher were with science and maths-teaching colleagues; I am still proud of my abilities in mental arithmetic and calculation, and I’ve always found playing with numbers in my head fascinating, along with other connections I’ve been able to make between what I learned in school, and later life. As far as science goes, I’ve had a lifelong interest in astronomy – my primary school best friend and I used to fantasise about whether we could get to be the first men to land on the moon! – and my enjoyment of detective fiction means I’ve always liked reading about forensic science. However, I do have to admit that an awful lot of mathematical and scientific knowledge does give me a serious headache after not very long: my brain just doesn’t seem to be wired that way… I did actually get to the end of Stephen Hawking‘s A Brief History of Time, but please don’t ask me what it’s about.

Maths and science feature noticeably in my reading. I loved Norman Juster‘s The Phantom Tollbooth, a book for children that introduces one to the joys of playing with words and numbers, as Milo visits the cities of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis. And, as I thought about this post, I realised that I’ve liked science fiction ever since I was a small boy, perhaps beginning with the Lost Planet series by Angus MacVicar, and never looking back since. But I must then confess that it’s never really been the ‘hard science’ variety that’s gripped me, much more the speculative kind.

Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein plays with what scientists were exploring in her day, and she couples it with a powerful story and incisive reflection on the morality of what scientists can get up to, reflections which perhaps we would do well to remember nowadays. Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should…

I found the fictionalised travels of the eighteenth century polymath Alexander von Humboldt, in Daniel Kehlmann‘s novel Measuring the World so interesting that I then went on to seek out and enjoy (an edited version of ) Humboldt’s travel journals. And Primo Levi, a chemist who survived Auschwitz, though not much of life after Auschwitz, wrote a fascinating fictionalised autobiography called The Periodic Table; each chapter is named after an element, the last is carbon, and the ending of the book is both witty (in the best sense of that word) and masterly.

I like reading popular science from time to time, because it’s accessible; I’ve enjoyed Steve Jones‘ takes on Darwin and evolution, The Descent of Men and Almost Like A Whale, and have also found what I’ve read about science and medicine in the Islamic world during our so-called ‘Dark Ages’ very interesting. In the end, there’s plenty of approachable material out there for the non-scientists like me; if only there was the time…

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