After reading his book on polio and his book on smallpox, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Gareth Williams turning his hand to something like the Loch Ness Monster — but nonetheless, I knew he was a good writer and understands science and the importance of evidence. And Nessie is fascinating, of course; even if there is no Nessie (and I tend to think there isn’t) then it’s fascinating how people have believed there was a Nessie, and spent their whole lives searching for her. I needn’t have worried, anyway: Gareth Williams presents the evidence without much sign of being partial. He notes when people’s evidence was convincing or their testimony likely to be trustworthy, as well as noting when people carried out fakes.
It turns out to be exactly as fascinating as you’d expect, looking at all sorts of people who made or broke their reputations hunting for the monster. In the end, we have very little direct evidence pointing to the existence of a Nessie, so unsurprisingly the book looks at the human side of the drama, along with the sciences that, over time, people have brought to bear on the problem.
I’m sure some writers wouldn’t be able to make this interesting, but to me, Williams did. And if nothing else, he had me wanting to believe in Nessie, for all that he attempted to stay neutral himself (and I wouldn’t like to pin him down on either side of the debate for absolute certain, though I think a lot of people wish it could be true but don’t think it is).
I’ve seen some complaints about the historical accuracy of this, particularly in regard to the earliest sections, but I’m unable to judge because it’s not really my area of history at all — inasfar as I know my history anyway, which is often patchy. I simply enjoyed The Written World as a summary, from one perspective, of how some stories and books have changed the world in being written (or in the case of previously oral works, written down). Puchner writes compellingly about books I haven’t read yet, and really makes them sound tempting — The Tale of Genji, for example (though he also makes Don Quixote sound fascinating, and I did not love that at all).
It’s not the be-all and end-all, but if you love books and you want to read about some books that have been important in shaping society, then this should be right up your street (up your bookshelf?).
This book is actually more of a biography of Heinrich Schliemann than a discussion of the excavations at Troy; although it does follow “Priam’s Treasure” and what has happened to it since Schliemann excavated it, including commentary on the politics that surrounded its loss and (eventual) subsequent retrieval, the main focus is Schliemann, his life, and his work as an archaeologist. There’s a lot of it taken up with Schliemann’s life before he found Troy, and a fair amount of time spent on evaluating the truth of his account of the excavation and indeed other aspects of his life.
There is some discussion of Troy and specifically the treasure found there, and there are some insights to other excavations led by Schliemann, but if you’re looking for an archaeology book, this isn’t quite it. There’s a lot more time spent on what languages Schliemann could speak and his relationships with his wives than on actual archaeology. It’s interesting, but not entirely what I hoped for.
I read this when I was a kid — I think I got my copy from my mother, who was about as fascinated by Tutankhamen as I was. Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt’s book is a serious, albeit now somewhat outdated, analysis of the objects found in Tutankhamen’s tomb and their significance, along with how Howard Carter found the site and the context of Tutankhamen’s reign. It can be pretty dry and serious, describing some of the artefacts in detail; I was surprised to realise that I read it with as much attention as a child as I did now as an adult. Clearly, Tutankhamen’s treasure cast a spell on me!
If you’re looking for the very latest information, of course this isn’t going to help. But if you’re looking for a solid introduction to the tomb and the early interpretations of the objects found within, I suspect this is one of the best. More so where the objects are concerned than where the mummy itself is concerned, though.
Despite the fact that some of it is dry, it’s worth remembering that this book kept me spellbound as a nine or ten year old, and again as a twenty-eight year old. It’s fascinating stuff.
Buy this book: Amazon UK
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Castles: Their History and Evolution in Medieval Britain, Marc Morris
If you’re fascinated by castles, then I definitely recommend this book. It’s not just a dry recounting of what castle was built when, but an examination of why castles were built and what they were used for, and what they say about the people who built them. There are some gorgeous photos and ideas for places to visit, but it’s not intended as an exhaustive guide — it focuses on a couple of example castles, rather than talking about every single significant or interesting castle in Britain.
Even better, Morris keeps the tone light, knowing just when to comment wryly or appreciatively about the people and ideas he’s writing about. It’s not just an interesting read in terms of the information given, but an entertaining one too.
Whew. The Great Influenza is a heck of a read: there’s a lot of information, and it takes quite a while to get to the actual point of the epidemic, because first it covers certain aspects of medical history. As with so many books like this, in places it becomes a sort of biography of the greats who were involved — it’s going to be interesting to see pop-science deal with the increasingly team-based approach to science, without central characters to pin the narrative on. In many ways, this is more history than science, though it does go into the discovery of the actual cause of influenza, the (lack of) treatments available then and now, the effects it has on the human body, etc. Still, it’s also very much about public health policy and medical practice: it is not just “oooh cool a deadly pathogen”.
Which, if you’re scoffing and thinking that flu isn’t a deadly pathogen, do think again. Even seasonal flu can kill those who are weakened in some way, or unlucky, and the 1918 flu killed from 50 to 100 million people in the years the pandemic ran through (about 1918-1920, to the best of my understanding). It’s difficult to predict how flu will mutate, because it does so all the time, and there are various different strains active in the population at different times. It’s also present in other host species, meaning we can cross-infect our livestock and pick up infections from them.
Flu is a problem, and it was a huge problem back in 1918 without so much commercial flight and recreational travel. The way it swept the globe then is nothing to what it could do now if we’re complacent. If you’re blasé about the potential of a flu pandemic like H1N1, I recommend this to change your mind.
There’s a lot of gory detail here about how the 1918 flu killed, alongside the more sterile descriptions of lab experiments and the dry series of events, and the nitty-gritty of how the influenza virus invades a host cell. It’s not exactly a thrilling read unless you find the topic truly fascinating (I do), but there is a lot here of interest.
I’m not sure about the subtitle of “solving Europe’s ancient mystery”. It is a mystery, of course, and it’s comparatively ancient, but I don’t think Aldhouse-Green manages to solve it. Examine it closely and lay out what evidence we have, yes, but that evidence doesn’t convince me that we have enough to make real judgements about what was going on. Especially not because Aldhouse-Green’s book takes in bog bodies all over Europe — places that in many other ways haven’t been demonstrated to have similar beliefs.
The book is strongest when she sticks to the facts. If you’re fascinated by bog bodies, there’s a whole range of them discussed at length, both the forensics of their deaths and the items that were found with them, and even what we know now with modern science about their lives. Even if you’re with me in thinking that some of the theories lean too hard on supposing there are commonalities across huge breadths of space and time, there’s a lot to learn here.
Like White’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I’ll confess I picked this up mostly because Machiavelli is an important character in the game Assassin’s Creed 2 (and at one point he even makes a reference to The Prince in the game). I haven’t read The Prince, but I had a certain idea of the content. White’s key point in this biography is that despite the aura of disreputable scheming around Machiavelli, that wasn’t his intent in writing The Prince, and he served Florence well and faithfully. Mostly, he was a shrewd strategist and diplomat, and an observer of human nature, who doesn’t seem — at least in White’s account of it — to have got the respect he deserved.
White’s biographies all seem to be pretty well sourced, and they’re very readable. I’d recommend them.
If you’re looking for a dynamic and riveting history of the Vikings, this isn’t really it — Neil Oliver’s book might be more your speed. It’s quite slow and thorough, covering a lot of ground in terms of both time and space. For me, that wasn’t a bad thing, since I know my medieval history tolerably well and my Viking history better. A better knowledge of geography might have served me well, but I suck at that.
From all I know, this is well researched and accurate, and there’s a ton of extra reading and footnoting to back that up. If you’re looking for something to bring the Vikings to life, no, but if you’re looking for something by someone who seems to know everything about the period he can find to cram into a book, then that’s definitely this book.
Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis, Kathryn Lougheed
Or mostly the making of it, since unmaking it has been so far beyond human powers.
If you think of TB as something that happens to other people, in other countries, or even only in the past, then this is a necessary corrective. It highlights the disease burden borne in particular countries (usually where poverty and poor nutrition support it), among particular groups (refugees finding it hard to access care; homeless people in London) and in people already suffering reduced immune function (people who have HIV). TB is still very much with us, and there are already strains out there which are completely drug resistant.
Let me say that again: we’re so far from beating TB that there are completely drug resistant strains out there which can only be treated with a Hail Mary approach of toxic antibiotics like kanamycin or surgical intervention. And there have only been two new anti-TB agents in recent years, and neither of them are ready to deploy on a large scale. Oh, and by the way, we don’t even have sufficient global supply of the current first line drugs.
I appreciated Lougheed’s focus on mentioning the fact that this drug resistance isn’t due to people not complying with their medication schedules. Antibiotic resistance naturally arises in TB, even if a patient is observed 24/7 and every pill or shot is administered on a precise timeline. We can’t just put this down to people being careless, though there’s no doubt that in some cases that could cause antibiotic resistance.
If you’re a fan of UKIP, you won’t like Lougheed’s commentary on racism, etc; she shares my views, as far as I can tell from this book, but she’s very vocal in giving little respect to that area of the public. I found her likeable for it, but your mileage will no doubt vary.
Anyway, all in all, this is an interesting, timely, not too technical history of the science of TB, and it’s a bit of an eye-opener even for someone relatively aware of the state of things. I found it very readable and illuminating.