Life in Miniature is a bit of a survey of dolls’ houses, mostly a descriptive one, which talks about some key examples in order to illustrate trends over the years, and ends with a chapter of advice for those interested in collecting dolls’ houses themselves. I’m not; I was more interested in this as a microhistory, and it does do a little of that, discussing the things dolls’ houses stood for, for those who owned them, and how trends developed.
For me, though, it was a bit too much plain description, too many descriptions of particular houses rather than the higher-level trends. Maybe there isn’t more to analyse about dolls’ houses, or the style is different to other microhistories I have loved… but it just didn’t turn out the way I hoped.
That said, if you’re a big fan of dolls’ houses and you’d like to know more about what’s out there, this book would be a great guide.
I feel like this book wasn’t quite sure what it was. History of the book? History of access to books? History of what people think about books? Autobiography of Martin Latham? There’s some genuinely interesting stuff sandwiched in between Latham making sure we know that he worked for Tim Waterstone and knew a bunch of famous people before you could Google them. Sometimes his anecdotes work to illustrate the narrative he’s trying to spin… and sometimes he’s telling us about weird dreams he had.
It was also full of this… reverence for the codex (not the contents) as a physical object, and being passionately in love with the physical form of a book. He’s a fan of physical books you can fondle, annotate, spill things on, write your name in… And I can get it, to some extent, but you’d think people aren’t real readers if they don’t like to caress books or crease spines or whatever. He does bring across the sensual enjoyment of books, and what a delight that can be for some people, but, yeah, just not sure about this absolute lionising of the codex-form of books above all else, above even the contents (which he rarely discusses in detail).
I expected to love this, but found myself fairly nonplussed. Overall, I can’t say I really enjoyed it — something about Latham and me just didn’t click, for a start.
As with Accessories: Bags, this book caught my interest less because I have an inherent interest in the subject, or even fashion more generally, but because it suits my current rabbit-hole interest. I was here for the titbits about why certain shoes went hand-in-hand with certain dress fashions, and the book certainly had plenty of that kind of titbit — like the fact that the very long points of shoes like poulaines were somewhat eschewed by women at the time; they just weren’t practical and would tangle in the long hem-lines of dresses.
The book is beautifully presented with full-colour photographs/reproductions of art, and it’s structured well as a chronological dash through shoe fashion. It’s much better about women’s fashions than men’s (which is not, of course, because women have always had the reputation for being obsessed with their shoes — I refer you to top boots and Hessians, not to mention the aforementioned poulaines!) because of a survival bias in the existing shoes, and it is much stronger on more recent shoes… which are perhaps least interesting to me.
Definitely interesting, and one I’d recommend if you’re interested in the subject.
This short volume is from the V&A Museum, discussing the trends in fashion for bags and purses, with a bit of an insight into pockets as well. In many ways it’s a very feminine story, since men retained pockets in clothing and haven’t been such targets of fashion for much of the time. It’s a very Western European history of bags, but nonetheless, it’s interesting to see how they developed and what was considered important or essential in a bag through time. The text is descriptive and refers to items from the V&A collection to illustrate their points, photographed beautifully and carefully labelled to help you match up the two.
I’ll admit, some of these bags are just weird to me, which is an entertainment factor all its own — mostly I mean the newer fashionable ones, like the one which looks like a bag of Walkers crisps. Why?!
Murderous Contagion: A Human History of Disease, Mary Dobson
I’d expected this to be right up my alley, but in the end, it was too general to really serve up the kind of titbits I’m looking for. Each chapter is a pretty high-level summary of the disease, its effects, its place in history and the current state of affairs, and though here and there some snippets were new to me, on the whole it just wasn’t deep enough for me. There’s some sourcing and recommended further reading, which is worth digging into, but it’s very much a layperson’s book.
As a layperson’s book, because of course I’m not a layperson in this field, it’s a pretty good overview of some very important diseases. The section on SARS and MERS is, well, not prophetic, but an intelligent person mentioning a warning they were aware of which we should all have heeded. The information in the book, as far as my own knowledge goes, is correct and interesting, though I wondered now and then if some things might be apocryphal (Albert Szent-Györgyi calling vitamin C “godnose”, for example).
I think the writing style might be a bit dry at times, though. I can’t tell if I thought so because so little of the information was new, or whether it was genuinely boring.
How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, Michael Pollan
If you’re interested in the recent findings that psychedelic drugs (like LSD and magic mushrooms) could help treat forms of depression that have proven themselves resistant to the usual standard of care, this is pretty helpful in many ways as a survey of how LSD et al were originally perceived, how and why things changed, how a psychedelic experience feels, and where things are right now with research (roughly, given that anything based on research can be refined or retracted by the time the book’s printed).
It is also, however, very much about the author: his experiences with various different psychedelic substances take up a whole chapter, and another chapter is given over to the hunting of mushrooms (and the descriptions of a psychedelic trip based on those, too). It’s a very personal history, though I feel that Pollan does make his biases and prejudices — and how they changed with the research — pretty clear, so the unwary reader is still aware that some of this is coloured by opinion.
It sounds like psychedelics are a pretty promising avenue not just for treatment-resistant depression, but for quite a few other mental health issues too. I don’t think that I’m ever likely to see out psychedelics recreationally: the described dissolution of the ego and changed perceptions don’t really appeal to me, and I’d rather find my oneness with the universe through meditation and just trying to be a good person. The one way in which it appeals to me is the finding that it often changes people’s relationship to death (having been used with great success as part of palliative care). As someone with 10-15 years of constant anxiety about my health and anxious predictions of my imminent death under my belt, the idea of feeling able to let that go to some extent sounds very appealing… if only there were an exact science to having the kind of trip that leads to that outcome.
There are a few things that bother me about the current perception that psychedelics could be a panacea for almost all mental health problems, and to his credit, Pollan does discuss them despite his enthusiasm. One is the near-impossibility of randomised controlled studies; another is the impossibility of tightly controlling all the variables when psychedelic drugs are used, because people’s experiences depend highly on their setting and their mental state beforehand, and crucially, what they expect to happen. As soon as you’ve got someone’s informed consent for a psychedelic to be administered, you’ve changed the outcome of their trip.
Finally, we’ve had seemingly amazing breakthroughs in mental health treatments before, but over time they have lost their efficacy — repeat studies on antidepressants like fluoxetine (Prozac) now find far smaller effects, even when everything is carefully controlled. It’s not entirely clear why that is, so it is also unclear whether that will apply to psychedelics as well, and to what extent.
In any case, Pollan’s book is an interesting survey of the history and the state of the field now, and well worth it if you’re interested in the topic.
The Story of Wales is an attempt to tell (some of) the history of Wales, and come to some kind of understanding about what shaped the nation as it is now. A lot of this history is familiar to me, but only vaguely and through literature, so it was nice to get it all laid out and clarified.
Well, “nice” is a very bad word for it, since the history of Wales quickly becomes a history of oppression of the language and customs. People don’t like hearing this, but what are the Welsh Not, Brad y Llyfrau Glaision, the wanton drowning of Capel Celyn to get water to Liverpool, but the oppression of a native people? And these events aren’t all hundreds of years in the past: Capel Celyn was drowned in 1965, after Liverpool put it through Parliament to avoid having to get planning permission from the local council (who would have denied it). All the Welsh protests against the drowning mattered not at all; only what the English Parliament said.
It was a little funny to see my tiny part in history mentioned there: I voted in the 2011 referendum, and voted “yes”. I wonder if one day I can go home to live in an independent Wales — I’ve never particularly wanted the end of the United Kingdom, but if an independent Scotland and an independent Wales can re-enter the EU, I’ll head home like a shot to get my rights back. It’s nice to know a little more of the history of my home, for sure, though The Story of Wales was at times a little dry or unengaging.
Digging Up Armageddon discusses the archaeology of a fascinating site: Megiddo, better known as Armageddon. Alas, despite wanting to know more about the archaeology and that area of the world, I struggled a bit with Digging Up Armageddon. Much of the book involves the exact composition of the digging team in the Oriental Institute Megiddo expedition, what they said and did and complained about. It’s all relevant — it affected the excavation, and shaped the entire approach to the dig… but it overshadows the actual archaeology in this volume, leaving me hard-pressed to talk about the archaeology!
As a result, it took me quite a long time to read it. It’s best approached as a history of that specific expedition and their legacy, with some discussion of how things have changed (how they misinterpreted or outright messed things up) — it’s definitely not about the archaeology alone, though you could in theory read each alternate chapter and focus more on the archaeological side. Still, things are so entwined that personally I wouldn’t recommend it, and I have no idea how you’d follow all the names and why they’re involved without reading it all. The disagreements were sometimes a bit byzantine.
In the end, I’m glad I read it, but it wasn’t so much the kind of non-fiction I really enjoy. If you’re looking for info on that particular expedition, it’d be a great resource.
The term “mudlark” might be familiar to you if you read Victorian history or books set in the Victorian period: it referred to people, often children, who would pick through the mud of the River Thames in order to find valuable things people dropped or which got lost from ships docking in London. Lara Maiklem is a modern mudlark, picking through the mud not as a means of making a livelihood, but for personal interest. She is, broadly speaking, a responsible one — documenting her finds correctly when they may count as historically significant or be classed as treasure trove, and avoiding mudlarking in areas where it’s forbidden. Or so she says, at least; it’s impossible to verify that, and occasionally her “of course I won’t tell you where” attitude to “her patch” raises an eyebrow.
She writes engagingly, though any single topic is quickly lost in the flow: there are so many different objects with stories and explanations, and each chapter covers at least a dozen, from old clay pipes to pieces of Roman hypocausts to bones to Codd bottles to pins… There’s no end to what can be found in the mud of the river after each tide, and she delights in all kinds of things that many would dismiss as trash, imbuing them with stories and researching who they may have belonged to whenever she can. Obviously this book is half a work of imagination, as she tries to picture the hands that handled and lost the objects she finds.
It’s just the sort of microhistory that interests me, magpie-minded in my own way, so that shouldn’t be taken as a criticism, necessarily — and she’s not presenting herself as a historian, so I don’t mind her flights of fancy so much. She does include a bibliography, if you want to go digging yourself, though it’d take a lot of digging to figure out where any particular factoid came from, and I suspect many of her sources from over the years aren’t listed.
It’s just worth knowing that this is a bit of a ramble, and a highly personal book, rather than a historical account of the River Thames or anything of that sort. There’s a lot of history in it, but piecemeal and cracked and strewn about the place, as befits a mudlark.
There’s nothing much surprising in Bigger than History, and in some ways it feels rather forced. I wish that knowledge didn’t have to be justified as useful for some current problem in order to receive funding and attention, and sometimes it feels like a bit of a stretch… but at the same time, it is entirely true that archaeology can shed light on the human history of reacting to changes in climate and how we’ve seen gender through history, etc — and it can be a powerful corrective to history as written by the winners. The issues mentioned are deeply important and relevant, like the discussion of the use of history to prop up misplaced nationalist pride.
It’s not a long book, so it doesn’t go into a lot of depth, but it does give a high-level view of what archaeology can tell us about those chosen topics. There are black-and-white images in most of the book, and a section of colour plates, which help to illustrate things.
Overall, glad I picked it up, but maybe I should’ve suggested it to the library instead of buying it. Not one I’ll be keeping; it’s just too slight.