King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Nicholas J. Higham
Much as I’m tempted to leave my review at that, I’ll be a little more rigorous. Higham’s book methodically examines every claimant for the original model for King Arthur, from Lucius Artorius Castus to the myths about the Narts, mostly focusing on the theories about a specifically historical Arthur. He examines each claim thoroughly, discussing its merits… and where each and every one falls down. The vaunted similarities between myths are barely similarities, the alleged likelihood of transmission to Britain is shaky, and so on and so forth. History isn’t my beat, but wherever Higham touched on the fiction that built the Arthurian mythology, he’s correct (as far as my knowledge and memory goes; it has been some years for me, admittedly).
It helps, of course, that his arguments come out strongly in favour of the common-sense conclusion that Arthur is a legend, as many legends are, with many sources and very little agreement between those sources about the kind of man/king he allegedly was. He’s also using some good common sense when he points out that the absence of evidence doesn’t mean any crazy theory could possibly be true. And he doesn’t just state why this is so: he goes through it, explaining why one translation should be favoured over another or how likely an interpretation is.
For my money, this is an excellent analysis of the ideas about a historical Arthur and in many ways of the claims for various fictional sources as well. Ultimately, if you long for Arthur to be real, this book won’t satisfy. If (like me) you’ve long understood that Arthur works best as an ideal, a chimera, a changeling who can be all things to all people, then you’ll be well satisfied that there seems to be no evidence that will pull the Welsh Arthur from my clutches or the Roman auxilliary from Sarmatia from anybody else’s.
This is a pretty slim volume which introduces the latest in gene editing technology, mostly but not exclusively referring to CRISPR, and its potential uses and implications. I was a little surprised there isn’t more to say about it, but Carey’s explanation of how CRISPR works is beautifully easy to comprehend (enough to make me update my own mental way of explaining it) and her analysis of the state of the art is pretty well on point as far as it goes.
Despite the boundless optimism I’ve seen around CRISPR, for all its potential it hasn’t changed the biomedical world yet (though labwork has already been transformed, as I understand it), and Carey is rightly cautious-but-optimistic in tone. My main complaint is just that I wanted more.
This is really out of date; practically a period piece in itself, full to the brim of fanboying over Heinrich Schliemann and Arthur Evans. It does raise some interesting points about Arthur Evans’ work, at the very least, suggesting that some of his restorations — like the use of concrete — were entirely necessary. I’ve read a lot of later work implying that his restorations were rather unsupported by the evidence, but the explanations here for at least some of them seem sound.
It was kind of an interesting experience to read about those two archaeologists in a positive and approving light. And kind of funny, too, that I was recommended this as a book about the Minoans and really it was rather more about Mycenaeans, of the two, and overwhelmingly more about fanboying Schliemann and Evans.
In search of a more informative book actually about the Minoans…
Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, Daisy Dunn
If this were sold as a novel, I probably wouldn’t have been so annoyed with it. However, it’s sold as non-fiction, despite doing the most amazing reaching to try and describe authentic episodes of Catullus’ life — nothing you could argue with as obviously untrue, but who knows where he ever walked up towards the Forum cursing the heat, or whatever anecdote like that first caught my eye? Dunn writes as if partially fictionalising the subject matter, while disarmingly taking the non-fictional stance of “perhaps” and “surely he felt that” and so on outside of the weird fiction scenes.
It’s a mixed approach and it’s probably true that that keeps some people more engaged, and that some people even prefer it. I don’t like being told that Catullus did this and did that part of the time, and then “maybe” and “perhaps” and “probably” the rest, when the things the writer says did happen are completely unknowable, and the maybes and perhapses are things Catullus actually wrote about.
Also, I know people have praised the close-reading of the poetry in this book, but I did better close-reading that some of this in the first year of undergrad alone. Most of it struck me as completely obvious — even facile. I’d take that with a pinch of salt, given I disliked the book, but… still.
Life in a Medieval Castle, Frances Gies, Joseph Gies
This book is pretty much what it says on the tin: an exploration of what life was like in a medieval castle, mostly drawing from the case of Chepstow Castle, but mentioning other castles when variations and other points needed to be made. It covers the life inside the castle — what the Lord and Lady of the castle would do, how they would entertain themselves — but also how the castle was supported by the lord’s people. There’s some space given to warfare and surviving siege conditions, as you’d expect, and the exact social circumstances that promoted the building and use of castles.
It’s an easy enough read, though there wasn’t much that surprised me in terms of being new information. For a more engaging read, I’d probably turn to Marc Morris’ book: Castles, which covers some similar ground. Probably makes a good reference read (no surprises there — the cover mentions that George R.R. Martin used it as such, which is probably why it and the other related books are having a nice little lease of life in bookshops)!
This book is about the impact humans have had on the world, and perhaps more accurately, it’s about how we pinpoint when that impact really began and whether we should consider the human impact to have started a new geological age for the Earth. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here about exactly how humans have changed the world: the Columbian exchange which is leading to the homogenisation of ecosystems, and climate change, of course, but also the deeper impacts to the carbon and nitrogen cycles.
There’s also a lot of rather tedious discussion of how exactly the committees to define geological time are set up, and that I could have done without. I don’t mind some information about that, but I don’t need to hear about the endless infighting and bureaucracy created in such detail! I’m actually interested in how humans have impacted the planet, not the process by which we decide whether to commemorate that by naming a geological era the Anthropocene.
There’s several instances of really bad editing in this volume, too — typos, sentences which don’t quite make sense, etc — which gives it quite a careless overall effect. Some useful information and theories, and some stuff I didn’t know from elsewhere, though!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, very little of this was actually unexpected to me. There is some interesting and entertaining stuff — including the penguin facts — but some of it was fairly well-worn. Possibly that’s because I have read a fair number of pop-science books, possibly it’s because my parents raised me on a solid diet of David Attenborough, but… meh. Cooke’s writing isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have much of a spark, and I didn’t find it particularly entertaining. Actually, I kept feeling rather bored, and switching books to stay awake longer (to maximise the precious hour or two I spend reading in bed — and completely offline — at the moment!).
So… it wasn’t bad, but neither did it strike me as anything special.
Spirals in Time discusses shells — all kinds of shells and shelled creatures — with all kinds of weird and wonderful facts… and others I feel like I really should have known. (An octopus is a mollusc!) If you’re interested in shells already, I’m sure it’s fascinating, but I ended up a bit lost and a bit, well… lacking in giving a shit. Scales’ enthusiasm is palpable, but I’m just not interested enough.
Besides which, I totally agree that anthropogenic climate change is real, but somehow being preached at about it in every book I read is beginning to get on my nerves. Yes, thanks, I know all this! I know there’s value in it being there and it’s all true and important, but… arggh! Somehow it’s becoming, unfairly, a pet hate.
This isn’t actually a bad book, just not my thing.
Patrick Nunn’s premise is that oral traditions may preserve details about events from a long time ago — not just decades, but centuries, and even millennia. He goes about trying to prove this by taking inundation stories as an example, linking them to post-glacial sea rise events, and trying to prove that the stories accurately depict the experiences of the tellers’ ancestors. I think his basic point is proven anyway: we know that oral traditions can preserve an amazing amount of detail over astonishing lengths of time. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written down long after the events they describe, with clear features showing they were actually performed aloud and passed from person to person in a feat of memory. We know that this survival wasn’t just a matter of a generation or two, because the stories contain clear details that were no longer relevant to the time when the stories were actually written down: weaponry, customs and geopolitics were different, but are preserved in the epics with a surprising degree of fidelity.
However, I think Nunn tries to go too far, and is generally pretty unsound. For one example that made me question his research, he mentions his theory that people originally created rock art as a sort of aide-memoire, on the grounds that they wouldn’t have done anything that didn’t aid in survival — that it must be so, because they wouldn’t have had time for anything other than survival. However, the 40 hour work week is actually a purely post-Industrial construct: modern hunter-gatherers — even living in a world circumscribed by land ownership and industry, i.e. with nowhere near the range they would have had prehistorically — need to spend far less time on subsistence. Anything from 2 hours a day to 8 hours is suggested, most of it on the lower end of that scale; if nothing else, hunter-gatherers had the same amount of free time as modern humans, likely more.
That’s a comparatively minor point, but it definitely made me sceptical. Add to that Nunn’s tendency to use phrases like “it is plausible to assume” and “it seems likely”, and his rather circular attempts to use sea levels to date the stories and stories to date the sea levels, and I’m extra-sceptical. These are mythic stories — things like a kangaroo digging a hole that causes the sea to flood in — and his interpretations are faltering. Does it mean X? Does it mean Y? At one point he says the presence of a particular feature in a story proved it referred to a permanent inundation and then later, though I suspect this was bad editing, seems to say the opposite of another story (it didn’t contain the same feature, and therefore still referred to a permanent inundation — what?!).
I think Nunn attempts to use two things that are necessarily imprecise to date each other, and gets tangled up in the relationship between those. I’d much rather see some underwater archaeology to show that people were living in these locations at the right time, as a kind of independent third corroboration. I think he’s particularly shaky when he discusses stories where drowned buildings are clearly visible beneath the water: it’s obvious that those stories cannot be purely handed down from the time of the inundation, but will have been reinforced, changed, or possibly even invented by new tellers, when the drowned buildings were observed in later times.
The basic premise that oral culture can preserve some astonishing detail from very far in the past is undeniable, and I commend Nunn’s use and examination of Australian Aboriginal stories in particular — I think it was a sound choice given their isolation from other people’s and the strength of their oral culture. I just think Nunn tries to stand up a stool with only two legs (the stories and sea levels), and should definitely have thought about other ways to establish his theories.
Obviously this is not my field in any sense, though I have a background in scientific investigation, so take my opinion for what you think that’s worth. I found the book interesting and largely well-written, even if the arguments are weak. I did find the recounting of every single individual inundation story known to the author rather tedious. There’s something like 21 one of them: pick the best ones, dude. Make a table to compare them. Just… something!
Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, Donald Johanson, Maitland Edey
This book might be a little old by now, and somewhat superceded by discoveries of other Austrolopithecines and Homo naledi, but it’s excellent for getting a solid understanding of the issues surrounding how we understand human evolution. It’s also excellent as a way of understanding the kind of environment that kind of research and debate is going on within — things have changed now in several ways, no doubt, but the methods of study and research are still true, and an understanding of the existing fossils –and how they were categorised — from when Johanson wrote is still useful.
I have to admit, I wondered about the obvious sour grapes between Johanson and the Leakeys that came up several times in this book. They were such renowned scientists — and honestly, I’d still remember their names before Johanson’s, despite the fame of ‘Lucy’ — but they were so wrong and so unscientific, in this view. It makes me wonder. Obviously, personal bias is likely to have coloured things here!
My favourite part was probably the final section, in which Johanson discussed theories about why humans are bipedal. It’s clearly argued, and while I agree with the critique mentioned in the book itself (I love the line “I’ve never seen an estrus fossil” as a retort), it mostly hangs pretty well together. (Basically: humans are bipedal to effectively look after children, increasing the number of offspring one woman can have; an advantage over most apes, who keep to one child at a time.)