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Christina Reads (2009)

February 27, 2010
Winter Rose dust-jacket by Kinuko Y. CraftChristina writes: In 2009 I took steps to increase the amount of time I devoted to reading. I decided that, like Wayne, I would read at mealtimes instead of doing crosswords. My programme is about 10–15 minutes reading early in the morning with my first cup of coffee, 15–20 minutes each at lunch and dinner (breakfast is devoted to our local newspaper), 5–15 minutes while drinking my mug of Horlicks before going to bed, and 10–30 minutes in bed at night, depending on what time I get there, plus occasional extra periods as they occur. With this programme I read seventy-three books in 2009. Of course, only books of a certain size can be read in bed, and at table I prefer to read books which lie open easily. I do not share Wayne’s skill of holding a book open with one hand while eating. Very large books and ones with foldouts are not suitable for either bed or table and need one’s full attention, and I would certainly not read books from our primary collections while eating. This means that I am usually in the process of reading at least two books.

I read some books soon after we acquire them, but others only years later. I already had a backlog of unread books when I moved to the USA in late 1995, much increased by the many books in Wayne’s collections which also interested me. We continued to acquire books even in the period 2000–2006 when much of our time was devoted to writing books and to research for them, so the backlog became even greater. Since we realized that even the space in our basement won’t provide for indefinite growth, the rate of acquisitions has slowed but is still substantial.

Some, such as children’s picture books and books on art, of course, require as much looking as reading. Of the eleven picture books I looked at and read, I particularly enjoyed Gennady Spirin’s Twelve Days of Christmas (2009*). When I saw Tales from Brooks Brothers: Introducing Henry’s Unsuitable Adventure (2009, story by Mike Reiss, illustrated by Dara Goldman) in a Brooks Brothers outlet store last autumn, I couldn’t resist buying it. Henry, a boy who likes dressing smartly, one night stays behind in Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue store to try on clothes and has an adventure with a dummy which comes to life. Both Wayne and I often buy clothes at our nearest Brooks outlet, and sometimes at the Madison Avenue branch which we always visit when in New York. Although Wayne as a child was not like Henry – his mother chose his clothes when he was young – today he too likes to dress smartly, often with a bow tie.

I read one book by Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009), and eight dealing wholly or in part about him or his works. Dmitra Fimi’s Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (2008) is one of the more interesting recent studies of Tolkien’s writings, though I spotted a few errors. Black & White Ogre Country: The Lost Tales of Hilary Tolkien (2009), edited by Angela Gardner, proved to be very slight though with some interesting photographs and a previously unpublished J.R.R. Tolkien letter. Douglas Charles Kane’s Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion (2009), a study of which of his father’s text texts Christopher Tolkien used in The Silmarillion, is a significant piece of research that I wish had been presented differently, as I wrote in an article which appeared in the August 2009 Beyond Bree. I thought the colour photographs by James Ray Veneman which occupy the greater part of The Inklings of Oxford: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Their Friends (2009) by Harry Lee Poe among the best I have seen of Oxford, but found several errors or misleading statements about Tolkien in the text.

I read very little fiction now, and that mainly fantasy, some of it in the juvenile or young adult category. I can get plenty of ‘real life’ from newspapers, and so much modern fiction seems to be about unpleasant people I don’t find interesting and would not want to spend time with if I met them. I read only five titles in this category in 2009. I have long been an admirer of Patricia McKillip and usually buy her books on publication. Since 1995 I have derived added pleasure from the beautiful wraparound dust-jacket illustrations by Kinuko Y. Craft. Winter Rose (1996), which had been sitting on a shelf unread, was one of the year’s most memorable and enjoyable reads. Robin McKinley is another author whose books I buy on publication, and I found her Chalice (2008) an intriguing read. I also enjoy Terry Pratchett, whose works often have a serious thread beneath the surface humour, and often choose one for transatlantic journeys. We did no flying last year, but I took Night Watch (2002) with me to read in the evenings on one of the two occasions when we drove out to the Midwest.

I acquired my first library ticket when I was five, and read avariciously and widely from an early age, soon developing a taste for historical novels, both juvenile and adult. History was a favourite subject in school, and when I decided to take my B.A. degree at Birkbeck College in London, which offers degree courses in the evening to those in full-time employment, I chose to study for joint Honours in History and History of Art. The history part of the course was English History to 1489 and European History 400–1500, with the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons and the Age of Bede as a special subject. I now read books on history rather than historical novels, history of all periods but with an inclination to the Middle Ages and earlier. I read nine books in this category in 2009. I know less about Roman history than medieval, but my basic knowledge did include the fact that the Roman advance beyond the Rhine was permanently halted when in 9 A.D. three legions were annihilated in the Teutoberg Forest by Germanic Tribes, and I knew from my art history of Trajan’s campaign against the Dacians because it is recorded in sculptural relief on Trajan’s Column in Rome. I found a fuller account of these events included in Romans and Barbarians: Four Views from the Empire’s Edge by Derek Williams (1999).

Since I enjoy the Anglo-Saxon period of English history, one of the most interesting books I read was The Lost King of England: The East European Adventures of Edward the Exile (2000) by Gabriel Ronay. When the Danish Canute seized the realm of England in 1016, he sent the two infant sons of the last Anglo-Saxon ruler into exile, allegedly to have them murdered. But as with Claudius’s similar scheme with Hamlet, his plot failed. Little was known about what happened to them until in 1054 Edward the Confessor, their father’s half-brother, having no child of his own, summoned the one survivor, Edward, to return to England with his wife and children. Edward the Exile arrived in August 1057 but died only a few days later, possibly poisoned by a member of the Godwin family. The author of this book has used contemporary and later sources to trace as far as possible the movements and activities of the exiles in Sweden, Russia, and Poland.

More briefly, I read two books by Brain Fagan which study the effects of climate on political and economic history worldwide: The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilisations (2008) which focuses on the period 800–1200 A.D., and The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300–1850 (2002). Isabel of Burgundy: The Duchess Who Played Politics in the Age of Joan of Arc (2001) by Aline S. Taylor provided me with a different viewpoint of the fifteenth-century wars between England and France. Rather unusually, I also read two books on the twentieth century: The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just before the Storm (2007) by Juliet Nicolson and London at War 1939–1945 (1995) by Philip Zeigler.

I find that many books, which at first sight appeal to me because of high-quality illustrations of works of art, also contain a considerable amount of historical background. Last year I read seven books of this sort. In February 2009 Wayne and I visited New York to see a blockbuster exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. Several weeks before our visit I read the massive catalogue with the same title (2008, edited by Joan Aruz, Kim Benzel, and Jean M. Evans). The exhibition explored the civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean area and contacts between Egypt, the Levant, Anatolia, and Greece, with much attention paid to the salvaged contents of a merchant ship wrecked off the coast of Turkey c. 1300 B.C.

Four books in the art plus history category reminded me of past holidays. Gold in Azure: 1000 Years of Russian Architecture (1983) by William Craft Brumfield brought back memories of my visits to Moscow, Vladimir, Suzdal, Leningrad, and Novgorod in 1974 and to Moscow again in 1979, but provided me with a very useful overview of Russian history. Three books I read were on Islamic art and history: Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva (2001) by Pierre Chuvin and Gerard Degeorge, about cities which I saw on a visit to Soviet Central Asia (Uzbekistan), part of a holiday in 1979 which also included Georgia and Armenia; Moorish Architecture in Andalucia (2007) by Marianne Barrucand and Achim Dednorz, which reminded me of a two-week tour of southern Spain in spring 1980, with opportunities to witness the Easter ceremonies and processions as well view Islamic and post-Islamic art and architecture; and Treasures of Islam: Artistic Glories of Muslim World (2007) by Bernard O’Kane, covering the whole field of Islamic art, much of which I have not seen, though in addition to Spain and Central Asia I have also viewed Islamic architecture in Istanbul, Bursa, Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, Delhi, Agra, and Fatihpur Sikri.

St. Margaret’s Gospel: The Favourite Book of an Eleventh-Century Queen of Scots (2007) by Rebecca Rushworth reproduces illustrations from a gospel book in the Bodleian Library once owned by Margaret, the daughter of Edward the Exile (see history section above), and includes an account of her life. A year or two after the Norman Conquest, Edward’s wife and children landed in Scotland, and Margaret became the wife of the Scottish King, Malcolm (the son of the Duncan allegedly murdered by Macbeth). I have always had an interest in Margaret since reading her story serialized as a picture strip in a weekly magazine for girls in the early 1950s. The little I can remember about it suggests that although the outline was probably reasonably correct, the emphasis was on exciting incidents rather than Margaret’s strong religious convictions.

Another book in this category which I read was one chosen for purchase by Wayne rather than myself. Railways and the Victorian Imagination (1999) by Michael Freeman describes the growth of the railways in Britain, how they were viewed by the population, and their social, economic, and environmental consequences, and it illustrates the various aspects with reproductions of drawings, paintings, cartoons, photographs, maps, publicity material, etc. illustrating construction work, views of tracks, trains, stations, passengers, and employees. I knew before that the railways had brought many changes, but I had not realized how great the impact had been.

My list includes fourteen books of which art is the primary topic, and history, if present, plays a subordinate part, in the form of biographical details and background. The art described and illustrated in the first book was drawn and painted about 30,000 years ago. The Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave: The Oldest Known Paintings in the World (1996) by Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hilaire describes the discovery in late 1994 of a series of caves in the Ardèche region of France with paintings twice as old as those at Lascaux. Colour photographs provide views and details of the many animals depicted, including horses, reindeer, bison, rhinoceros, and lions.

Duccio and the Origins of Western Painting upper cover

The Art History part of my B.A. degree included a paper on the Italian Trecento. Duccio of Siena was one of the most important painters of the period and one whom I very much admire. His greatest work (in size as well as quality) was a two-sided  altarpiece for Siena Cathedral. I saw the greater part of this work (some smaller sections such as the predella were removed and are scattered) in the Opera del Duomo, Siena, on two visits to Italy, and I remember clearly that it was lit so that the colours seemed to glow. A few years ago, the Metropolitan Museum paid a very large sum (apparently about $45 million) for a panel only 11 × 8½ in. (28 × 20.8 cm.) painted c. 1295–1300 A.D. by Duccio. Wayne and I saw it at the Met soon after it arrived, and on a later visit bought another book I read in 2009, Duccio and the Origins of Western Painting (2008) by Keith Christiansen, which discusses the new acquisition in relation to Duccio’s other works.

Books on early Netherlandish art, especially illuminated manuscripts and panel paintings, occupy considerable shelf space in our art collections. During 2009 I read three of these books: works on this period, the first and third catalogues of exhibitions which, alas, we were not able to visit: The Limbourg Brothers: Nijmegen Masters at the French Court 1400–1416 (2005) by Robert Duckers and Pieter Roelofs; Jan van Eyck: Two Paintings of Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata (1997), edited by Jane Watkins, about closely similar paintings in Philadelphia and Turin, both of which I have seen; and Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges (1994) by Maryan W. Ainsworth and Maximiliaan P.J. Martens.

I enjoyed a new book about the museum where I was in charge of the research library from 1971 to 1995: Sir John Soane’s Museum, London (2009), by the present director, Tim Knox, with superb photographs by Derry Moore. Soane was a major British architect who bequeathed to the nation on his death in 1837 the house he had designed for himself and the collections that filled it. Wayne and I were privileged to hold our wedding reception in the Library-Dining Room. I also read another book with Soane connections, Joseph Gandy: An Architectural Visionary in Georgian England (2006) by Brian Lukacher. Gandy was the draughtsman responsible for many atmospheric views of Soane’s architectural designs, and had some success with his own views of imaginary scenes, often with grandiose architecture and dramatic lighting.

The last four books I mention seem rather a mixed bag, but looking again I can see there is a connection in that all are concerned in some way with the search for knowledge and its transmission. F.E. Peters in The Voice, the Word, the Books: The Sacred Scripture of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims (2007) considers the origins of the Old and New Testaments and the Koran, the formation, transmission, and translation of these texts, and their differing significance and ritual use. In each chapter of Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books (2008) Margaret Willis focuses on a particular reader or collector, such as Samuel Pepys, in considering how books were produced, sold, and purchased, and who might be reading them, in a particular period.

Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (2003), edited by Kim Sloan, has the same title as the permanent exhibition recently installed in the wing of the British Museum known as the King’s Library (300 feet long by 41 feet wide and 31 feet high), built to house the extensive library collected by George III and given to the Museum by George IV in 1823. The King’s Library was left empty when the books moved with the British Library to St. Pancras. The Sloan volume covers the same ground as the exhibition, aiming to show how the scientific and intellectual advances in the eighteenth century were viewed at the time by those who collected, examined, researched, and wrote about many aspects of the natural world, and past and contemporary human history, illustrated through collections assembled and presented to the museum during that period and the books in which new knowledge or classifications of objects, plants, etc. reached a wider public. It contains many photographs of objects, and of books, many of which I would love to own.

The Story of Broadcasting House, Home of the BBC (2008) by Mark Hines was chosen by Wayne. This is a history of the building in Portland Place, London, designed for the BBC and its main home since 1932, but also of the BBC itself and how programmes were and are produced, illustrated with many photographs.

* In this account of some of the books I read and mostly enjoyed in 2009, I give the first date of publication, not necessarily the date of the copy we own. A list of other books I read last year may be found here.

Images: Dust-jacket for Winter Rose (1996) by Patricia A. McKillip, art by Kinuko Y. Craft; upper cover of Duccio and the Origins of Western Painting (2008) by Keith Christiansen.

One Comment
  1. Pierre Dobrzykowski permalink
    April 13, 2010 4:58 pm

    It has proved quite interesting to me of how you two read. Well, holding a book while eating seems also to me quite dangerous, because of getting the book dirty and so on…
    It already happened to me to let a book fall into the water while taking a bath! “Poor Bilbo Baggins…”, in this case…

    (Excuse any mistakes, especially if a German writes…;)

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