Tag Archives: reading

2015 in books

This has become something of an annual habit. You can see my reviews of the years 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. I began by polishing off a couple of books I started at the tail end of 2014.

The christianity books have been more numerous than any other. The reason for this is that I had simply acquired more books in this category than any other. I tried to roughly alternate between general theology, something specifically related to Jesus and testimony.

My science reading has pottered on. I made no particular choice to pursue certain topics. Though it remains slightly depressing that if you browse the science shelves of the average bookshops that you will find quite a gender imbalance, so the fact that my science reading is almost exclusively male is more reflective of the publishing industry than it is of a conscious choice on my part to avoid women writers.

In fiction, I continue to try to mix up classics with lesser known works. This year saw the publication of Harper Lee’s follow-up to To Kill A Mockingbird. The publication was announced at the start of the year, with Go Set A Watchman hitting the bookshops in the summer.

The other non fiction has attempted to plug some serious gaps in my understanding of philosophy, with some pepperings of history and economics. Yet just when I thought I was getting somewhere in patching up these holes, I ended the year by reading Slavoj Zizek, which rather exposed just how ignorant I am.

At the start of the year I gave myself a challenge to read some things that would counter my own worldview. It is of little use merely reading books that I think I will agree with. It’s good to look at things afresh. If we all only ever sought out views that accord with we what we believe already then no one will ever learn anything. I also asked for recommendations of books that would challenge me or otherwise be off my beaten track. Specifically, these books were:

Cover Her Face – P.D. James (to challenge my dislike for crime fiction)
Taking God at his Word – Kevin DeYoung (to challenge my liberal objections to biblical inerrancy)
Neither Here Nor There – Miriam Drori (which wasn’t really to challenge me, I think the person who recommended it to me is a friend of the author and recommended it to me as a way of helping them out)
The Road to Serfdom – Friedrich Hayek (to challenge my left-wing economic views)

Christianity (18)

The History of the Church – Eusebius
Dazzling Darkness – Rachel Mann
Jesus the Jew – Geza Vermes
Life Together – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
How Jesus Became God – Bart Ehrman
Simply Good News – Tom Wright
How God Became Jesus – various authors
Taking God at His Word – Kevin DeYoung
Theology of Hope – Jurgen Moltmann
Hebrews For Everyone – Tom Wright
Cranky, Beautiful Faith – Nadia Bolz-Weber
The Bible: A Very Short Introduction – John Riches (review pending)
The Quest of the Historical Jesus – Albert Schweitzer (review pending)
Gravity and Grace – Simone Weil
Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction – Fergus Kerr (review pending)
Mark for Everyone – Tom Wright (review pending)
Quaker Writings – various authors (review pending)
Baptism in the Holy Spirit – James Dunn (review pending)

Science (8)

Stuff Matters – Mark Miodownik
50 Ways The World Could End – Alok Jha
Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science – Jim Al-Khalili
The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins
The Spark of Life – Frances Ashcroft
The Signal and the Noise – Nate Silver (review pending)
The Descent of Man – Charles Darwin (review pending)
Alex Through the Looking Glass – Alex Bellos (review pending)

Fiction (11)

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Cover Her Face – P.D. James
Good Evening, Mrs Craven – Mollie Panter-Downes
The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
Dear Life – Alice Munro
Go Set A Watchman – Harper Lee
Thank You, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse
Neither Here Nor There – Miriam Drori
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons (review pending)
The House on the Strand – Daphne du Maurier (review pending)

Other non-fiction (14)

Watching the English – Kate Fox (already started)
Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction – Catherine Osborne (already started)
The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction – Martin Loughlin
The Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
The Koran: A Very Short Introduction – Michael Cook
Before I Say Goodbye – Ruth Picardie
Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction – Nicholas Vincent
Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction – Cynthia Freeland
The Social Contract – Jean-Jacques Russeau
The Early History of Rome – Livy
The Road to Serfdom – Friedrich Hayek
Hegel: A Very Short Introduction – Peter Singer
Wanderlust – Rebecca Solnit
On Belief – Slavoj Zizek (review pending)

Total (51)

Started but not finished (1)

The Black Prince – Iris Murdoch

So of these, which were the best and which were the worst?

Let’s start with the negative first. In fiction, there were no real stinkers, though Miriam Drori’s overly-explanatory style and simplistic writing stood out as being rather more amateur than the other books in that category. In science, again there were no particularly bad books, though Charles Darwin’s ‘The Descent of Man’ stood out merely for its dullness. Not a dullness of wit or intellect, but rather that it made for an uninteresting read, particularly in comparison to the expectations that I had for the book. The subject has been covered by others since Darwin and has been done a lot better. Other non-fiction didn’t fare so well. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’ is very outdated now and speaks to a different world to the one in which we live, so I cannot find myself recommending it. Onto more 20th century politics, Friedrich Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’ is more relevant, but his whole premise and conclusions are topsy-turvey to reason and good sense. The year finished with my introduction to Slavoj Zizek who had moments of sparkle, but where the whole work was so far up its own arse it rendered it incomprehensible. Within the writings on christianity, I had some issues about James Dunn’s ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’ though that was more with the presentation of the book than its contents. Much worse in terms of the writing was Simone Weil’s ‘Gravity and Grace’ which had its moments, but read like a disparate string of half-formed thoughts. But taking the biscuit was the worst of the lot, not because of a lack of clarity but because of how wayward and misleading the content was. So my award for the worst book of the year goes to Kevin De Young’s ‘Taking God at His Word’.

With the less pleasant reading done with, let’s look at the sunnier side of things. Staying with christianity, the year began well with Rachel Mann’s ‘Dazzling Darkness’, which was a very creditable effort and which I’d recommend to pretty much anyone. Any work by Tom Wright is always worth checking out and this year saw me finish three such works, two of which were part of his ‘For Everyone’ commentary series; though his work, ‘Simply Good News’ was a great work, which did a lot to summarise his magnum opus on Paul: Paul and the Faithfulness of God. But my best christian book of the year goes to one that dates from the mid 20th century, as a gracious, yet firm, take on christian life. I’m referring, of course, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together’. Moving onto the fiction works, I rather enjoyed Jessie Burton’s debut offering, ‘The Miniaturist’, even though it was for reasons quite different from what I was expecting. ‘Go Set A Watchman’ was always going to be a book that would anger some, given the high regard for ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, yet I found it a worthy companion piece that posed some very awkward questions of the reader. Though science was the most neglected of the 4 categories I use, there were some great works within it. None managed to top the book that I started the year with, Mark Miodownik’s ‘Stuff Matters’ which was a superb example of enthusiasm married to expertise. In other non-fiction, I was very pleased with Peter Singer’s Very Short Introduction to Hegel, but this was eclipsed by one of the most spectacular set of essays I’d come across about walking. So taking my recommendation to you as the best book of the year is Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust.

How to read 5 books at once (and not get them muddled)

1. The Main Book

As the title implies, this is what I regard as the book I’m focusing on. It’s what I read when I commute or if I get an odd spare half an hour (and I have it on me). It travels around and I get through it relatively quickly. I’ll typically average about 20-25 pages a day.

Past examples: The Wasp Factory, Dazzling Darkness, Watching the English

Current example: Theology of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann

2. The bedside book

The bedside book is a long book  that is read slowly. Typically only 5-8 pages are managed per night. Sometimes, it does come on the commute and makes for a break on a Friday from reading the main book.

Past examples: Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Histories, Philosophical Investigations

Current example: The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin

3. The coffee table book

This is a book made of multiple short ‘bits’ that only take a few minutes to read. The Very Short Introductions are very good for this.

Past examples: Boffinology, Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, 50 Ways the World Could End.

Current example: Hebrews for Everyone by Tom Wright

4. The lunchtime book

Very similar to the coffee table book, this is a shortish work that props up my keyboard at the office. I get to read for about 20 minutes at lunchtime, so it has to be something that can be picked up and put down with ease. This is only something I’ve started doing recently.

Recent examples: Art Theory – A Very Short Introduction, The Social Contract

Current example: Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil

5. The Sunday afternoon book

To make a break from the rest of the week’s reading, Sunday afternoons need something a bit different. It needs to be something that doesn’t need to be read continuously, so it can’t be a constructed argument for anything. Rather, each part needs to be self-contained and preferably not too short so that you can get stuck into it for an hour or two each week. For this, short stories are ideal or a collection of essays. Again, this is only something I’ve started doing recently, and any work I do read this way will be one I take my time over.

Recent example: Dear Life

Current example: Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit


So how do these not get muddled up in my head? Well, I try not to read too many of the same genre. If I do, they tend to be at opposite ends of the genre. For example, it is very rare that I read two fiction books at once. If I were to do so, one would have to be a classical work (such a Thomas Hardy novel) and something science fiction-based (like a work by Philip K Dick).

Similarly, if I were to be reading two science books at once, then I might opt for one on biology and one on maths.

You get some interesting confluences between books sometimes. For example, I was recently reading Livy’s Early History of Rome, which was being referred to by Jean Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract, which I was also reading. Then Rousseau was referred to by Rebecca Solnit in her book on walking, Wanderlust. Given the possible permutations of books being read simultaneously, I wonder if I was the first person ever to come across that particular linkage.

One of the other methods I used to use (when I spent longer commuting) was to have one book for the morning route and one for the evening.

What about you?

Do you read lots of books at once or do you prefer to focus on one at a time?

Why read?

As the number of book reviews on this blog approaches 200, there’s never been an explanation here of why I read quite so much.

I haven’t always been a bookworm. I really only started to read more extensively and intensively since I finished all forms of examinations when I qualified as a chartered accountant. Through my higher and postgraduate education, I was far more focused on my studies that I barely had time to read. What little I did was often of a low quality. For example, most of the 4 years of my degree were supplemented by Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. While the first instalment, The Gunslinger, was very good and the follow up was OK, but the rest was an awful drag and I’ve been put off fantasy ever since. This is why, despite numerous recommendations, I have never read any of the volumes of George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

This might seem out of character, as in my youth I loved Frank Herbert’s Dune series. I read the whole lot between my GCSE mock exams and the finals, subsequently dropping a grade in nearly every subject.

It was around that formative time that I learned to hate Jane Austen. We studied Pride and Prejudice to death, sucking out any joy that might have been there. I’m still no fan of hers and have no desire to pick up Northanger Abbey any time within the next few decades.

I suppose the main reason I started to read a lot was because of my commuting. At the time I worked as an auditor so rarely worked in the same place for more than a week at a time. I tended to either be in central or south London, Kent or various industrial estates around Sussex. Spending upwards of 3 hours a day on various trains can be rather boring, even if some of the countryside around the South Downs is rather picturesque.

Perhaps it was this rural world that I would pass through on my way to a factory floor that drew me to Thomas Hardy. Though not all have been reviewed here, I’ve read most of Hardy’s work. The only extant published novels of his which I haven’t yet read are: A Laodicean, Two on a Tower and The Hand of Ethelberta. As I saw dwellings other than those of a city or a large town, I could imagine the characters making their way in life in the very locations that I passed, separated only by time.

But fiction is not my only passion. My primary passion in reading has been science. It’s a peculiar consequence of when I set up this blog that there aren’t more science books listed. The fact is, I had increased my level of reading before I started reviewing. So it may be a case that if I run out of good science books to review that I’ve found in a shop recently, then I may re-read some of the great works that don’t currently have a review on this website. For example, if you look at the index by author, you may get the impression that I haven’t read much Richard Feynman. That is a false impression; I simply read most of his more popular works before I started this blog.

This is all before I get to the category that forms the majority of my reading: christianity. I think the reason why I have read so much more on christianity in recent years than any other subject is because I’m catching up. I used to pretty much study the bible either by myself or in church and had quite a small selection of study guides. It wasn’t really until I started to read around a little more widely that I began to get a glimpse of how much more I didn’t know or didn’t understand. So I began to consume theology and apologetics quite voraciously.

This then gets to the heart of my current reason for why I read so much these days. It is to try to fill the gaps in my understanding in order that I may hold informed opinions and make informed decisions. To be somewhat self critical, this is because of an awareness that others are almost invariably better informed than I on matters about which we converse. It is rather a treadmill where nomatter how much you learn, there is always someone who can simply stroll past you. So I admit to a kind of envy of the learning of others. I see myself as a child with short legs who has to put in a lot of effort to run, just to keep up with the long-legged stroll of their parents.

This way of thinking about reading has then extended into the other non fiction. This used to be a casual break from the more serious reading that I did, but of late it has extended into more learning, particularly about history, philosophy and economics. There is no real end goal to this. I am not aiming to get a point where I could claim “I know it all” or to be more informed than anyone else. Others might consider me well read or reasonably well informed, but many of those same people have read plenty that I haven’t, know things which I don’t or have life experience that I will never have.

Yet at the same time, it would be unreasonable to play myself down too much, that would be false modesty. I am reasonably well informed on the subjects in which I am interested, for someone who has had the opportunities in life that have been afforded to me. My point is that this cannot be grounds for complacency or to arrogantly think that I know more than any person I may pass on the street. I’m just trying to keep up, and books are the easiest means available to me.

Contrast this with travel. I am very poorly travelled compared to many people. Having only been on overseas holidays twice in the last 15 years, there are many who have had great wealth that have allowed them gap years, annual holidays or the like in which they have gained far more life experience than I have. My exposure to other cultures comes through words, translated into English, that have come mostly from single sources. I have never laid eyes on many of the great sights that the world has to offer and probably never will. While such travel is limited to the very privileged, reading is far more democratic.

That’s my motivation for reading. What’s yours?

Visiting the bookshops of London (part 1 of 8)

Introduction

At the end of February I had a week off work. I had hoped to go away for my first overseas holiday in 5 years and second since 2000. Unfortunately, due to a monumental cock up from Nationwide (who I will no longer be using) this wasn’t possible, but I still had the time booked off. I couldn’t really cancel it as our HR policy says that we have to use any and all roll over from the previous year has to be used by the end of March, so if I didn’t take the time off I’d lose my entitlement.

I wanted to try to do something a bit nice and a bit different from normal, so I decided to go on a pilgrimage. Only I wasn’t trying to visit and relics or holy places – I don’t buy into that pagan nonsense. This is pilgrimage in terms of merely visiting lots of places you want to go. I know a fair few bookshops in London but there are many that are highly spoken of that I’ve never been to. I had a look around and made a list, adding to it as I received recommendations.

When looking around a bookshop, there are all sorts of things to take in and consider. Some shops have that “old book” smell to them, some have wonky floors, some specialise in certain types of books. Almost any bookshop will have a lot of fiction available, but it’s in the quality of the non-fiction that a good bookshop can be discerned. So everywhere I went I made a point of looking out for what was on offer in my twin loves of science and christianity. I made it my aim to buy a book from each one I visited with a goal of trying to make it a book that would typify that shop or that you could only buy there. Ultimately, it was my prerogative, so I admit I sort of broke this on a couple of occasions when I spotted something that just jumped out at me.

I ought to point out that I am far from original here. I had planned on doing a write up of each but before I started to do so, somebody pointed me to The Matilda Project. There is some overlap in the bookshops covered and her descriptions are far more thorough and pleasant to read than mine, even though our opinions of some of the shops do differ greatly.

  1. Bookmarks

I began in Bloomsbury, at one of the more left field bookshops. Or maybe that should be left wing. Bookmarks is dedicated to all things Marxist and the fight for equality. As you walk in there are copies of the Socialist Worker for sale on your right. On almost every shelf is a small bust of Karl Marx. There was some slightly dreary jazz playing on the Friday night I was there. It was sparsely populated and the chap who I presume was the proprietor was sat unobtrusively behind a desk, with various revolutionary posters adorning the space behind him.

I was struck by the existence of a children’s section towards the back of the store. I regret not having taken a closer look to see what sort of things were available for 10 year old would-be communists. While Marx was the main focus, there was a more antiquarian section where one could seemingly buy anything and everything that Lenin ever wrote. There were also shelves entitled women’s right and black struggle. The bookshop seems to have its own publishing arm and these had their own shelf, but some were also scattered elsewhere.

You’d be unlikely to find anything by Hayek or Friedman here, but I would take a guess that they get a few mentions in some of the anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal volumes that populated the economics section.

If you’re used to the likes of Waterstones or opening up Amazon packages, then I would recommend this as somewhere to go for a slightly different experience.

Book purchased: Breaking Their Chains: Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers’ Strike of 1910 by Tony Barnsley.

  1. Book Warehouse

This is a chain store with a few outlets scattered around. The particular one I went to is just by Russell Square and is the HQ for the business. It has a fair bit of crap there of little interest, but what it is really good for is grabbing a bargain. If they’ve got it in stock then the chances are that it’ll be cheaper here than any other shop you can go to.

A lot of what they have in stock are from Wordsworth, either in the Wordsworth Classics imprint or Wordsworth Editions. These books tend have fairly poor binding which is why they get sold off so cheaply, but if you don’t mind a book falling apart after the first reading then this is ideal. As might be inferred from this, the real strengths of the bookshop are in fiction, with some specific areas of non-fiction. Unfortunately, they don’t have a strong offering in the sciences and what passes for christianity is rather risible.

Book purchased: A Wordsworth Editions abridgement of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

  1. Quinto

Quinto is one of the many bookshops that can be found down the Charing Cross Road. It specialises in second hand and antiquarian books. They all look incredibly expensive, but appearances can be deceptive. You can browse around in the front of the shop, but as with many of the bookshops in the area this area is rather small and one can feel quite exposed. Thankfully, there’s a very helpful sign that points to a back door and reads something like “[There are plenty more books this way]”. As you follow the sign you are led down some wonky stairs with a thin railing and another sign saying that the railing wasn’t secure so it best not to put your weight on it.

The downstairs area isn’t huge nor was it was terribly well stocked when I was there. But what is there is fantastic. You have to look very carefully at the binding to work out what books it is that you may have picked up, but each one was a gem. Maybe one of the reasons the shelves weren’t well stocked was the fact that there was one chap going round taking them off and ending up with a great pile in his arms. He looked a little comedic as he had to arch his back backwards, but I sort of envied what enjoyment and learning he would be able to take from the horde that he carried.

I’ll definitely be back here, if only to find things that are long out of print and to ensure that someone else can receive the wisdom from the past.

Book purchased: A 1927 edition of Robert Owen’s A New View of Society & Other Writings.

  1. Book Mongers

Situated in the heart of Brixton, Book Mongers is a treasure trove of the second hand. It’s most notable feature is the resident dog who was sat by the window as I came in. He was friendly enough but unobtrusive. He had a little sniff of my hand as I tried to work out the theme of the bookshelf on the left as I walked in, which was a curious mix of gardening, science and travel writing. The place is piled up high with books of all sorts in a gloriously mess that lies someway between semi-organised and disorganised. There was some lively jazz playing on the Saturday morning I visited.

The owner was sort of cordoned off by a wall of books that separated him from the rest of the shop. Yet the way the place was laid out, one had all sorts of little tunnels or nooks to go down which made the best of the way the shop was laid out. At the back of the place there was a shabby looking sofa, from which the most easily reached books were old law textbooks. Someone came in offering a load of medical textbooks while I was there, but they were being donated rather than sold, as the owner was keen to take the address of the donor “for tax reasons”.

I definitely plan to come back here in the future. I just don’t know what great works I may find in the quaint chaos.

Book purchased: The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer.


Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at Beautiful Books, The Kennington Bookshop, Foyles and Daunt Books.

What to read in 2015?

Having listed out the books I read last year it seemed appropriate to look ahead at 2015. I’ve had a look at all the books that I have on my living room floor (in several piles) and in my desk drawer at work to see what I could read this year. Below, I’ve split the books out into my normal 4 categories. They aren’t necessarily in the order that I will read them but a rule of thumb would be that those nearer the top of each category are more likely to be read before those near the bottom of the same category.

As you can see, there are imbalances all round. For example, I’ve got far more christianity books than fiction books and far more books by men than by women. So I have a few questions for you that will help shape my reading for the forthcoming 12 months.

  1. Can you suggest some science and fiction books to even up the categories?
  2. Can you suggest some more books by women to even up the gender imbalance?
  3. Of the books listed, are there any that you particularly recommend (i.e. that I read them sooner rather than later)

The fourth question is a bit more convoluted. While I aim to read books that I think I will enjoy, I also want to stretch myself by reading things that I may well disagree with. In 2014, I read several works by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, where I didn’t expect to agree wholly with them, though I sit towards the same end of the political spectrum as they do. As a complete opposite, you will spot Friedrich Hayek’s most famous work, The Road to Serfdom, on my list. So the 4th question is this: What book would you recommend as something to challenge my views, something you think I will disagree with? This comes with a couple of caveats: first, no extremist literature; I have no intention of reading Mein Kampf or anything like that. Secondly, if you make a suggestion that I take up, you must take up a reciprocal suggestion from me. Thirdly, it must be a reasonable price and length; I would be hesitant to take up a book that is 500+ pages long or costs in excess of £25.

Christianity (24)

  • The History of the Church – Eusebius (already started)
  • The Making of the Creeds – Frances Young
  • Jesus the Jew – Geza Vermes
  • Quaker Writings – various authors
  • How Jesus Became God – Bart Ehrman
  • Cranky, Beautiful Faith – Nadia Bolz-Weber
  • How God Became Jesus – various authors
  • Baptism in the Holy Spirit – James Dunn
  • Imitating Jesus – Richard Burridge
  • Dazzling Darkness – Rachel Mann
  • Zealot – Reza Aslan
  • Theology of Hope – Jürgen Moltmann
  • Letters to London – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • God’s Smuggler – Brother Andrew
  • Simply Jesus – Tom Wright
  • The Return of the Prodigal Son – Henri Nouwen
  • The Inner Life – Thomas a Kempis
  • Life Together – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? – Brian McLaren
  • A New Monastic Handbook – Ian Mobsby & Mark Berry
  • The Go-Between God – John Taylor
  • The Bible: A Very Short Introduction – John Riches
  • Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction – Fergus Kerr
  • Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction – Mark Noll
  • Pentecostalism: A Very Short Introduction – William Kay

Science (10)

Fiction (8)

  • Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  • Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Dear Life – Alice Munro
  • The House on the Strand – Daphne du Maurier
  • The Black Prince – Iris Murdoch
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

Other non-fiction (20)

Total                      (62)

You may also place a wager as to how many of these I will get through.

2014 in books

As previous years (2013, 2012, 2011, 2010) here’s a summary of the books I’ve read this year, along with links to each of the reviews that have been published so far.

This seems to have been a year of the longer book which, combined with a shorter commute after moving home, has resulted in a reduction in the number of titles finished. By quite some way, the monumental read was Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which I started in November 2013 and finished around 7 months later.

After this, I managed to speed up a little in terms of the number of books read, though I did choose to read some shorter books during the summer. Another factor that affects my reading is depression. Though I don’t suffer from it anywhere near as many others do, between May and July, the early sunrises, coupled with a lack of blackout curtains, meant that I had much worse S.A.D. than I have had in the summer before. Normally, it only affects me in the winter. This winter, though, work has rather predominated which is why I am behind on writing my reviews.

So without further ado, here’s what I managed to complete in 2014:

Christianity (10)

Science (11)

Fiction (8)

Other non-fiction (11)

 Total (40)

 On top of these, there are 3 books which I’ve started but not yet finished. These are:

  • Watching the English – Kate Fox
  • Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction – Catherine Osborne
  • The History of the Church – Eusebius

Worst book of the year

Before deciding what was the best book, it’s worthwhile to see what I most definitely wouldn’t recommend. There certainly wasn’t anything I read that I absolutely hated. In the christianity books, the stand out weakest two were Revelations of Divine Love and Why Worry. From very different points of view, they each portray a version of the gospel that is lacking or at least misguided. In the former, it is the catholic perversion of the gospel, in the latter it is the prosperity gospel.

In science, the possible two that were a bit of a disappointment were The History of Astronomy: A Very Short Introduction and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. The former was because it was just a summary of Hoskin’s other work to which he kept referring, the latter because of the lack of detail in the mathematics, combined with the author’s slightly haughty attitude.

None of the fiction books I read were poor. The middle part of Silas Marner got a bit turgid and the third part of The Forsyte Saga did drag on a bit. But I wouldn’t seek to deter you from reading either of these.

In other non-fiction, you may notice a particularly strong left-wing leaning with Marx & Engels. Now while I may not wholly agree with their particularly analyses, even finding them out of date in some cases, only Socialism: Utopian and Scientific could be regarded as a poor work, as opposed to simply being one with which I disagreed. Though I wasn’t too enamoured with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, given its highly individualistic point of view.

So which of these should be regarded as my one to avoid? Even though it is short and is probably not found in most bookshops, for shoddy writing, poor theology and all-round shallowness my turkey of the year has to be Andrew Adeleke’s ‘Why Worry?

Best book of the year

With that over and done with, let’s turn to the sunnier side of things. In the christian reading, the year was dominated by N.T. Wright’s magnum opus on Paul. In fact, that probably sated me in terms of heavyweight theology which is why the rest of the year was spent, to extend the metaphor, snacking on some lighter areas.

The science books were probably the strongest consistently, though the year ended with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which was one of the best pieces of science storytelling one could possibly hope for and I would thoroughly recommend. For those more inclined towards physics, Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door is well worth reading, even though it is already out of date thanks to the confirmation of the discovery of the Higgs boson.

The fiction reading was dominated by the 3 part epic that was The Forsyte Saga and I could readily see why John Galsworthy was given the Nobel Prize for it. Though not generally a fan of modern fiction I greatly enjoyed both Iain Bank’s The Wasp Factory and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, both of which were their respective debut novels.

In non-fiction, there are a few classics there which I have gone through. My surprise hit here was Plato and a Platypus which I found both delightfully irreverent and quirkily informative. The other book that jumps out was the most recent publication of the year, being Harry Leslie Smith’s take on austerity in the 1920s and the 2010s. Combining personal story with searing insight into politics, economics and history, Harry’s Last Stand is a stark warning, looking at this country in the same way some of the Old Testament prophets looked at Israel.

So while I would that you read each of these that I’ve mentioned, which ought to be read with most urgency? For its timing, with just months to go before the general election, my 2014 book of the year has to be Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith.


Your turn now:

What have been the best (and worst) books you’ve read in the last year?

Jumping in the middle

In my recent review of Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction I said the following:

“[Cullen] puts forward a hypothetical situation where one friend says to another, “how can you claim to know about x if you haven’t read y?” when another pipes up, “ah, but you can’t possibly consider y without having read the rebuttal by z.” And so on. I have, from time to time been part of such conversations (see the comments below this blog piece from last year) and I frequently find them frustrating.”

Here I wanted to expand on that a little, as it is rather pertinent to some thoughts and conversations I have had of late. Having finished my formal education shortly before my 23rd birthday, I have spent most of the last decade being either taught for a professional post-graduate qualification or being self-taught. It is the latter of the two I wish to focus on here.

The main question is this: if you are to be self-taught, where do you begin?

If you’re reading this, you will probably know that I love reading. Yet I’m not the kind of reader who can pick up a book, find a comfortable spot in a nice chair and read a book cover-to-cover in one sitting. I read on trains, coaches and buses as I criss-cross the country, either to get to work or to visit family. It is this time that I have to teach myself. But I haven’t thought to myself: “I want to learn about X. So let’s devise a curriculum that will help me do that.” Rather, I just like to dive in.

The problem with this is that jumping in the middle means you’ve missed the start. But where is the start? If you follow the link above, you will see that the discussion there concerned Ludwig Wittgenstein. Though I now own a copy of Philosophical Investigations I haven’t yet got round to reading it. My intention is to start on it as soon as I finish Paul and the Faithfulness of God (of which I am currently up to about page 940 out of 1,520). To read Wittgenstein is to read a work of philosophy. But can it be properly understand as work in its own right, devoid of the background against which was written, ignorant of the target audience and oblivious to earlier work in the same field by others which Wittgenstein may be building upon or rebelling against?

The argument may go something like this: “How can you read Wittgenstein without first reading Hegel?” “How can you read Hegel without first studying Kant?” “Can you really understand Kant without considering Aquinas?” “Do you comprehend the relationship between the views of Aquinas and Augustine?” “Where would Augustine be if it hadn’t been for Plato before him?” And so on.

I have read some works of some of those thinkers, but by no means the majority of the works of any one of them. Others I have only read snippets about in secondary works where they are mentioned. Must one go back in infinite regress in order to understand the most recent thinking? If one tries that, one might be drawn to the writer of Ecclesiastes: “The making of many books has not an end, and much study is the weariness of the whole body.”

So we never end, it seems. If one wishes to be learned, then the age of human civilization (though but a single beat in the symphony of the history of the cosmos) is too great for any one person to master. I know things you don’t, things you will never know or comprehend. Yet you know far more than I. Your experiences, your emotions, your way of seeing the world has been honed over the period of a lifetime. To try to replicate that would take another lifetime, but we each have only one to live.

From philosophy to history. I have made a start at a recognisable beginning with Herodotus and Thucydides, but given the vast complexity of the last few millennia, but should that stop me from reading Hobsbawm until I worked my way through every nation state, every people, in all eras up to the start of the period that Hobsbawm looked at? I would argue that the answer to that is ‘no’. It seems right. It feels right. But why?

I might use the analogy of a scratchcard. If I am interested in one part of the card, I may scratch at it and learn something of what is underneath. To put it in some kind of context, I may scratch around it a little, but does one necessarily need uncover every portion of the card to get a true and fair view of the image on the card? Or can one afford to uncover the centre and bits around it, satisfied that that is enough to form a reasonably well-informed opinion?

I suppose the ‘informed opinion’ is what really concerns me. Most of us know that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” but how do we determine what is “a little knowledge” and what is “a lot of knowledge”?

The irony is, I would suppose that all these questions have been asked before, and others have put forward answers to them, but that I am ignorant of those responses.

2012 in books

This year, I was not able to finish as many books as in 2011. A large part of this may have to do with a few heavy tomes. It took quite some time to get through Herodotus’ Histories, Homer’s Iliad and Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. Below is the whole list, complete with links to each review. Also, if, on reading this, you have any recommendations of titles you think I might like then please do feel free to leave suggestions.

Christianity (16)

The Historical Reliability of the Gospels – Craig Blomberg
Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes – Kenneth Bailey
Revelation for Everyone – Tom Wright
Barefoot Disciple – Stephen Cherry
The Problem of the Pastoral Epistles – P.N. Harrison
Jesus and the Victory of God – N.T. Wright
The Four Loves – C.S. Lewis
The Early Church – W.H.C. Frend
Paul: A Very Short Introduction – E.P. Sanders
What St Paul Really Said – Tom Wright
Christianity Rediscovered – Vincent Donovan
The Purpose Driven Life – Rick Warren
Paul: Fresh Perspectives – N.T. Wright
Introverts in the church – Adam McHugh
The Future of Justification – John Piper
Blind Spots in the Bible – Adrian Plass

Science (7)

The Limits of Science – Peter Medawar
On Space and Time – various
Cosmos – Carl Sagan
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
A User’s Guide to the Brain – John Ratey
The Man Who Changed Everything – Basil Mahon
Collider – Paul Halpern

Fiction (10)

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
The Woodlanders – Thomas Hardy
The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
The Well-Beloved – Thomas Hardy
The Double – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Iliad – Homer
Under The Greenwood Tree – Thomas Hardy
The Aeneid – Virgil
Desperate Remedies – Thomas Hardy
The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick

Other (6)

Histories – Herodotus
The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto Geuvara
Finding Darwin’s God – Kenneth Miller
God is not Great – Christopher Hitchens
Confessions of a GP – Benjamin Daniels
A Brief History of the Crusades – Geoffrey Hindley

Total (39)