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Christina Reads (2012)

January 9, 2013

Ascent of Man bindingChristina writes: Our book acquisitions in 2012 totalled 355, a forty per cent increase on the previous year, including pamphlets and booklets but not periodicals. There were several reasons for this increase: the publication of many books on Tolkien and reissues of Tolkien titles to mark the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit or in conjunction with the release of the film adaptation; the number of exhibitions we saw last year, resulting in the purchase of catalogues; visits to several Half Price Books outlets; and the many interesting titles we found in shops during our visit to England last May, titles we haven’t seen well represented in American shops.

My B.A. is a joint honour degree in Medieval History (with the early Anglo-Saxon period as a special subject) and the History of Art. Both of these subjects continue to interest me. I read many books on ancient history and medieval history, and my interest is not confined to Europe. My interest in art has a similar focus, but extends through the nineteenth century. Wayne and I are not particularly interested in contemporary art, but we do enjoy some of the illustrative and decorative art of the twentieth century.

At the beginning of 2010, I wrote a blog post about the seventy-three books I read during 2009. For 2012, I am going to comment on the thirteen books I most enjoyed reading last year – a baker’s dozen because I could not choose which one to discard. During the year, I actually read 121 books. I reached that high number by devoting more time to reading (either by choice or on plane journeys and in airports waiting for planes) and by selecting shorter volumes, or ones with many pages devoted to pictures, in an attempt to decrease the number of titles awaiting my attention proportionately, if not by number of pages.

Several of the books on my list relate to my interest in both history and art, in particular Petra: Splendors of the Nabataean Civilisation by Francesca A. Ossorio (2009). Petra, which I visited in 1978, is a World Heritage site, and its appeal was well summed up by a nineteenth-century visitor as ‘a rose-red city half as old as Time’. Although I already owned two books on Petra, when I saw the superb colour photographs in this large volume, in a Half Price Books, I couldn’t resist adding a third. However, it is not just a coffee table book. The blurb on the front flap notes that the text was written by an archaeologist with expertise in the Roman Middle East, and ‘offers a comprehensive look at the historical and archaeological aspects of the Nabataean city and its still unclear origins’.

Arabs and Normans in Sicily and the South of Italy by Adele Cilento and Alessandro Vanoli (2007), another find in Half Price Books, is similar, discussing both history and art, illustrated with colour photographs. The Normans in the South were dealt with in my B.A. degree, but I had not looked at the subject before from the Arab point of view. The illustrations brought back memories of my visits to Sicily in 1975 and to Southern Italy in 1979.

Making History coverAnother well illustrated book is Making History: Antiquaries in Britain 1707–2007 (2007), published to accompany an exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, but relevant to the smaller exhibition on the same subject we saw at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven early in 2012 (see my post here). The catalogue illustrates a small part of the collection of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, and records the part the Society has played since the early eighteenth century in discovering, recording, preserving, and interpreting Britain’s past. As the catalogue notes, the illustrations include ‘antiquities of international importance, detailed records of lost buildings and objects, paintings of ancient sites and landscapes by Constable, Girtin, Turner, Blake and other artists commissioned by the Society and its fellows, royal portraits from Henry VI to Mary Tudor, and rare historical manuscripts’.

In three of my chosen books, history is dominant over art, and two of the three concentrate on the solving of a specific historical mystery.

Neal Ascherson’s Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism (1995, Folio Society edition 2011 based on a 2007 emended text) is described in the Folio Society catalogue as ‘part travelogue, part history . . . a dazzling journey around . . . the place where East meets West’.

Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor (2012) by Charles Allen is concerned with the story of Ashoka, whose empire around 250 B.C. covered most of the Indian subcontinent. According to the blurb on the dust-jacket, ‘through his quest to govern by moral force alone, Ashoka transformed Buddhism from a minor sect into a major world religion’. But after his death, as Buddhism declined in India, his monuments were destroyed and ‘even the historical record was cleansed so effectively that his name was largely forgotten for almost two thousand years’. Allen follows the rediscovery step by step as enterprising archaeologists record and decipher mysterious lettering on stones and begin to excavate sites, piecing together India’s long-lost history. He concludes with an account of Ashoka and his immediate predecessors and successors, taking into account the not always consistent evidence.

The blurb on the dust-jacket of The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands by Nicholas Clapp (1998) recounts the author’s search for ‘the most fabled city in ancient Arabia . . . described in the Koran as “the many-columned city whose like has not been built in the whole land” [which] was destroyed for the sins of its people’.

The Earth bindingGenerally I have not bought books on scientific subjects (that is more in Wayne’s department), but in the past few years I have acquired several from the Folio Society, either as one of the free volumes supplied on continuing my membership, or because the titles appealed enough to be included in the four volumes one must choose each year to renew. I read two of these in 2012, and although both are shelved with other books on science, they might also be described as history books. In The Earth: An Intimate History (2004, Folio Society edition 2011), Richard Fortey ‘unlocks the geological secrets of the earth – its origin and the constant processes that destroy and create it. His aim is to unite the natural and human history of particular places with the geological realities that underlie them’ (Folio Society brochure). In doing this, he also records the stages by which geologists and others were able to recover the past history of our world.

The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski was a free gift with my 2012 Folio Society renewal. Wayne already owned an American issue of this work published in 1973, the same year as the BBC publication based on the television series of the same name (which Wayne has on DVD). Many of the illustrations are common to both copies, while others are similar but not identical, or are included only in one edition. The Folio Society volume includes a brief foreword by Melvyn Bragg. This is certainly Bronowski’s most popular book, a well written ‘personal view’ of the history of humanity told alongside a history of scientific knowledge and achievement.

Mughal Architecture and Gardens coverMughal Architecture and Gardens by George Michell (2011) with superb colour photographs by Amit Pasricha is similar to the book on Petra, but its text is mainly concerned with stylistic developments rather than historical background, so I classify it as an art book. Although I already owned a couple of volumes on Islamic architecture in India, apart from one specifically on the Taj Mahal, they say little about the gardens which were a major part of each scheme. . . . In the first of my blog posts ‘London May 2012’, I wrote about the exhibition of the work of Johan Zoffany that Wayne and I visited, and commented on Zoffany’s attractive pictures of family groups and famous actors and actresses in theatre productions. We did not buy the official catalogue for the exhibition, but the larger and even more lavishly illustrated Johan Zoffany 1733–1810 by Mary Webster (2011) which I read early in the year before we left for England. The emphasis is definitely on the art, but with it comes much information about the social, artistic, and political currents of the times. . . . Wayne has already devoted part of a blog post to the third art book on my list, so I will merely give its title: The Art of Simon Palmer introduced by Elspeth Moncrieff (2011).

I read less and less fiction every year, getting much more pleasure from non-fiction books of the kind listed above. Of the few fiction titles I read in 2012, only one made my list: I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett, a young adult Discworld novel about the young witch Tiffany Aching. This was published in hardback in 2010, but I waited until 2012 for a trade paperback edition to match my copies of the three earlier Tiffany novels. I find myself out of sympathy with much of current fantasy writing, but continue to enjoy Pratchett’s works. Although they may seem on the surface to be light-hearted, humorous fantasy set in a strange world with many non-human beings, almost invariably they also have a serious thread concerning problems in our own world. In this book, a spirit of hatred and malice comes from the past and begins to influence people to turn against witches whom it blames for everything wrong with the world.

Diana Wynne Jones Reflections coverMy last book is Reflections on the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones, with a foreword by Neil Gaiman (2012). Diana Wynne Jones was one of my favourite authors, and in my opinion one of the best writers of fantasy, though she never received the recognition she deserved. Her books fill six linear feet in one of our bookcases, all but the earliest bought on publication. They are books which I often feel the urge to dip into again. I heard her speak several times, most notably at a Tolkien Society Seminar in 1987 organized by Jessica Yates and myself. Reflections on the Magic of Writing is a collection of articles, papers, and reviews written between 1978 and 2008. Reading it was both a sad and happy experience: sad because Diana Wynne Jones died in 2011, but happy because it brought back memories of her forthright and amusing manner when speaking and of how much I have enjoyed her many books. She put a lot of herself into her stories, which are often very complex, requiring a second read to discover all of the plot twists. Although some characters appear in several books, each title was fresh, not written to formula. Jones can be very amusing but also very sympathetic in dealing with her characters, their problems and relationships. I can’t name just one favourite, but will mention those I have especially enjoyed: Dogsbody (1975), Charmed Life (1977), The Spellcoats (1979),  The Magicians of Caprona (1981), Fire and Hemlock (1985), Howl’s Moving Castle (1986), The Crown of Dalemark (1993), Deep Secret (1997), The Year of the Griffin (2000), and Conrad’s Fate (2005). I just wish I could look forward to more.

Images, top to bottom: Binding for the Folio Society edition of The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski; cover of Making History: Antiquaries in Britain 1707–2007; binding for the Folio Society edition of The Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey; dust-jacket for Mughal Architecture and Gardens by George Michell and Amit Pasricha; dust-jacket for Reflections on the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones.

One Comment
  1. January 19, 2013 8:45 am

    Glad to be a friend of one of the authors (Vanoli, Arabs and Normans in Sicily) in the top-13. With many greetings also on his behalf. Gian Pietro

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