The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (Penguin Classics)

John Mandeville (1357)

A book it’s hard to know what to make of. It starts as a fairly standard mediaeval travelogue before morphing into something more akin to a bestiary or morality tale – all told in the same voice, as though both plausible and fantastical events were equally well-observed. It’s been a source of controversy ever since.

I read The Travels after reading Riddle And The Knight, one of the recent attempts to make sense of it. I suspect that’s the right way round: reading The Travels first might incline one to dismiss it as nonsense, whereas in facts there are (or may be) deeper things at work. One can’t help but want to follow Mandeville to Sinai and St Catherine’s monastery.

3/5. Finished Tuesday 17 December, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Uninhabitable Earth

David Wallace-Wells (2019)

A view of the climate crisis that clearly aims to instill fear – and succeeds – but which clearly also aims to be a call for action, in which it’s a lot less successful.

The author is precise about his goals and limitations, presenting the science and implications of global heating without himself being a scientist. He does an excellent job of doing so, in all the terrifying glory. But beyond that it’s hard to see what the book is for. It tries to be motivational, but can’t help ending up characterising all the efforts as doomed either on technical or political grounds. That may in fact be true. But by making all action seem futile, it risks either inducing a state of learned helplessness or invoking a spirit of “eat, drink, and be merry”, neither of which is helpful especially if the specific claims or predictions of the science are wrong.

And that’s a vitally important point. The science all points in the direction of human-caused climate heating with disastrous consequences. But the mechanisms, rates, feedback loops, and other factors are all filled with uncertainty. That’s not an excuse for inaction: far from it, it’s potentially a huge motivation, because – unlike the impression one might get from books like this – the endpoint isn’t certain and it’s still completely possible for action on a large enough scale to tilt the balance in positive directions, at least towards lesser or shorter-duration consequences.

2/5. Finished Tuesday 17 December, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Weather Machine: How We See Into the Future

Andrew Blum (2019)

Weather forecasting is one of the triumphs of modern technology – and especially computing technology. This book stretches across the technology stack, from the sensors that are collecting the raw data (and how they evolved from earlier systems) all the way to the modelling and processing of that data into usable forecasts, with some very interesting diversions into the sociology and politics of global weather forecasting, and how the rise of privately-owned data streams may improve the lives of many but disadvantage some of the areas of the world most in need of better forecasting as the climate warms.

But Blum manages to do all this without ever really getting to grips with the technology or the science, and that’s rather disappointing. It’s made worse by side-references to some ideas that could have formed the basis for discussion, for example Edward Witten’s discovery of the chaotic dynamics of weather which is what drives a lot of model design. To me that suggests reading this book alongside Chaos: Making a New Science, where the science is more central and the technology therefore more understandable.

3/5. Finished Saturday 12 October, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Robert Macfarlane (2019)

A lyrical exploration of underground, in all sorts of senses, from potholing in England to trekking across a barren Norwegian island in search of palaeolithic rock art. It’s an amazing journey to be taken on.

And the writing is quite amazing in many places. I’ve never been a caver (I used to be a rock climber), but the claustrophobia of some of the caving exploits made me squirm and get almost panicky even though I was sitting out in the sunshine. The description of the Paris necropolis and the way it’s now a centre for an alternative nightlife is almost beyond belief, and Macfarlane’s descriptions of artic villages and treacherous mountains are equally vivd and engrossing. This is one of the few books that really draws the reader in, like standing alongside the author in his adventures. Not to be missed.

5/5. Finished Saturday 12 October, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Sherlock Holmes and the Lady in Black

June Thomson (2015)

The premise of this book is that Sherlock Holmes, now retired to the coast, is still applying his mind to the mysteries he finds in his vicinity. The problem is that the “mystery” isn’t actually all that mysterious, or gripping, or in any way exciting, which means there’s never any real sense of Holmes engaging with anything of importance. While I think Thomson captures Holmes and Watson quite well, there’s a lot of be desired in terms of plot.

2/5. Finished Saturday 12 October, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)