The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Alan W. Watts (1966)

A book that tries to take some of the planned seriousness out of life, recommending a more accepting and present course that enjoys the journey rather than worrying about achieving some future goal. As such, as a way of approaching living, it’s an excellent antidote to the cult of self-help and self-actualisation books that currently flourish, and has lost none of its power in the half-century since it was first published.

3/5. Finished Thursday 24 December, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life

Roman Krznaric (2011)

An excellent tour through philosophy and cultural history in search of the good life. There’s a lot to like in this book, which is erudite and subtle without being in any way pretentious or a hard read. Starting off discussing the six modes of love recognised by the ancient Greeks, it then proceeds through ideas of travel, belief, work, time, money, and finishes with ways we might improve the ends of our lives (treading a very similar path to that identified by Atul Gawande in Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End). On the way it performs a welcome rehabilitation of Adam Smith and visits the thought of Gandhi, Goethe, and a whole range of less famous (but equally important) innovators.

It’s impossible to read a book like this without comparing it to The Consolations of Philosophy. In many ways it’s a perfect complement to Alain de Botton‘s work, similarly addressing modern concerns from the perspective of classical authors. I prefer Krznaric’s approach mainly because it’s more broadly about art and literature rather than strictly about philosophy, which allows him to draw on a wider range of inspirations. It certainly provides a lot of provocations to leading a better, more thoughtful, and richer life.

5/5. Finished Tuesday 15 December, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

Val McDermid (2014)

An easy-to-read and broad-ranging exploration of forensics. The fact that McDermid is a crime fiction author clearly makes a difference, as she writes with the ease of someone used to making these ideas accessible. The book ranges over all aspects of forensic science, perhaps being strongest on the physical aspects like fingerprinting and DNA profiling. What comes out most strongly is the need for an holistic approach to investigation, the ways in which all the different aspects of a case – physical, psychological, and circumstantial – need to be fitted together to form a consistent scientific and criminal narrative.

4/5. Finished Wednesday 2 December, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The First Salute : View of the American Revolution

Barbara W. Tuchman (1988)

A broad and fast-moving account of the endgame in the American War of Independence.

I’m an enormous fan of Tuchman, but this is far from being her best work. She still has the same eye for detail, same same telling turn of phrase, but the narrative is a little confused and the timeline hard to follow. She deals with some of the same issues in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, a much better book. I think the weakness in this book stems from her taking an explicitly American perspective (“our country”, “our leaders”) which is missing from her other work: while she remains as even-handed as ever, and is far from being an American jingoist, it strikes an awkward note.

Having said that, there is huge satisfaction is hearing about the naval side of the war, the decisive influence of sea power on victory, as well as the details of 18th century naval warfare and the various characters involved. I was unaware of the degree to which France – and especially the French navy – was involved directly in the war, to the extent of dramatically affecting and constraining possible British strategic moves. Tuchman describes their motivations with exquisite care, as well as those of the newly-independent Dutch, showing how American independence was only part of the larger game of European power politics.

4/5. Finished Saturday 31 October, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The History of the Runestaff

Michael Moorcock (1980)

Justice is not the Law; it is not Order, as human beings normally speak of it; it is Justice — Equilibrium, the Correction of the Balance.”

This is one of the classic “swords and sorcery” series, a model for many that followed. Full of irony and wonderfully drawn scenes that a reader can visualise despite their fundamental and well-crafted alien-ness. I first read this work over twenty years ago, and my older self still loves it.

The story follows the adventures of Dorian Hawkmoon and companions as they fight the Dark Empire of Granbretan (nice touch, that) in a far post-apocalypic future. And defeat it, of course, though not before most of them die: this is fantasy fiction, after all. The plot is quite simple, in the sense that final victory is never seriously in question and momentary difficulties are quickly overcome. But that’s to quibble, and to ignore Moorcock’s skill as a fantasy writer, his ability to create a world that’s fundamentally still human despite its strange features and magical powers.

5/5. Finished Saturday 10 October, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)