Have a look at the books I added to my collection this past month.
I had to make a trip into the Melbourne CBD one Saturday in April and that meant the chance to visit the second-hand book market at Federation Square. I rarely walk away empty handed when I do, but this day, because I was early, they were barely set up when I arrived. Fortunately, the table that holds the most interest for me, one with more contemporary, more literary, books, was up and ready.
I picked up a copy of American Gods by Neil Gaiman, an intriguing book by a very popular author whom I have yet to experience outside of the film adaptations of his stories.
I also got a copy of The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi, a book I may not have heard of were it not for the series of ‘Revolutionary Writing’ published by Faber. Novels of life in totalitarian Islamic countries, or of Muslims adapting to life in the West, or Westernised Muslims returning to their homelands have very much become items of high interest for Western readers for obvious reasons and the same is true in our household where they are an increasing section of our shelves.
Armed with a gift card for a book chain store, I thought I’d best use it on a relatively new book. So I bought Dead Wake by Erik Larson. A best-seller, it is a book on the story of the sinking of the Lusitania. I’m expecting something engrossing and compelling.
Next, I headed to a discount book store. I seldom leave it without at least a couple of books. It was closing down and was selling everything for $6. To my great annoyance I spotted a book there that I had recently purchased; Cicero by Anthony Everitt. I had bought it online for 30-odd-dollars, discounted from 50-odd-dollars, thinking I had got a good deal, but here it was for $6!
Anyway, I did find a copy of Philip Hensher’s The Mulberry Empire. I had been considering it for a while. I’ve heard mixed things about it; few people seem to either love it or hate it, most opinions being somewhere in the middle. It may have taken a few liberties with historical facts. But it is a fascinating story and it may make a nice accompaniment to read with William Dalrymple’s Return of a King and it is hard to turn down for only $6.
When the lawn-mowing service visits, I make a trip to the mall with my one-year old (the lawnmower upsets her). I wasn’t expecting to buy a book – the mall has limited options and I’ve frequently pored over them – but at Big W I spotted A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s highly regarded, a Booker Prize shortlister and they were selling it for only $13. I couldn’t pass that by.
I’m a relative newcomer to buying books online. I had avoided it for years preferring to support local independents and take advantage of the discounts that came with the demise of the large chains. But, there aren’t any local independents where I live now and I don’t make a trip into the city very often. Buying online has also made me a better shopper. When visiting physical stores, though I may have an idea of what books I am after, I am often drawn away by new books or sales. As a result, some books remain on my to-buy list for years. Plato’s The Republic, for instance, I never got around to buying because it is never unavailable and never on sale. When buying online, though, I don’t tend to browse and explore, just pick up the ones I know I want. After years of neglecting it, a copy of The Republic, bought online, is now on my shelf.
In April, in my online shopping I picked up John Stuart Mills On Liberty and the Subjection of Women. Like Plato’s The Republic, this is a book I had intended to get for a long time but never got around to.
I also got James Lawrence Powell’s Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences. I frequently rant on my opinion that school-level science education needs to change for an internet age. Teaching facts and the use of formulae is not as important anymore as teaching the scientific method that discovered those facts and derived those formulae. The rise of the anti-vax movement, principally amongst otherwise well-educated people, is evidence of the failure to teach students how to think critically and evaluate evidence. Science class, for 12-15 year olds if not 12-18 year olds, should, in my opinion, instead focus on teaching the scientific method with historical examples. Most of the practical experiments can remain as well. In other words, school science should be more like a history class; explaining how we have reached our current state of understanding. This would be far more in keeping with educating students in ‘life skills’ that are necessary and applicable for all. Those students that aspire to have careers in science and related fields will learn the necessary facts and formulae at university anyway; where they are taught on the assumption that they don’t already know them.
With all this said, James Lawrence Powell is a geologist who has written a book after my own heart. His book details four relatively recent examples where established thinking was overturned by radical new ideas followed up by overwhelmingly persuasive evidence. The four revolutions of the book are: Deep Time, that the Earth is far older than previously thought; Continental Drift, which can explain most of the Earth’s surface features; Meteorite and Planetary Impact, that explains other features of the Earth, the existence and features of the Moon, of other solar system objects as well as the extinction of the dinosaurs; and Climate Change.
My own knowledge of science history, of examples of competing theories and ‘revolution’s is limited to my own degree in chemistry and my reading of cosmology, evolutionary biology and a little epidemiology. Powell’s book will add the Earth sciences to that list and I am eager to read it.
Since the arrival of my daughter, I have been buying books for her as often as I buy books for myself, though recently this has slowed down because she now has a rather extensive library of her own and attractive options for more are limited. I leave age-appropriate books for my wife to buy, and I instead have one eye to the future when she is older.
In particular, I have been buying up Puffin Classics, although, like their parent company, Penguin, I have a beef about their recent cover design choices. It used to be that the Puffin Classics had colourful covers with a white band across it mirroring the Penguin Classics. The cover pictures were quite cool, Gothic even. The picture for The Wizard of Oz had the witch’s feet sticking out from under a house. Journey to the Centre of the Earth had a terrific sea monster on the cover. And the cover for Wuthering Heights looked like the poster for a Tim Burton film. I managed to get none of these covers though. Recently, Puffin have redesigned their range and the covers have the look of posters for 60’s sci-fi films. I find them somewhat uninspiring.
But anyway, in April I bought for my daughter The Myths of the Norsemen. I have already bought her Puffin’s books on Greek and Egyptian myths and thought this would be an interesting one. I have mixed feelings about simplified, watered-down, versions of ancient myths written for children. On one hand I wonder if it might be best to avoid books like these and see if she would be interested in the adult version when she is older. For the same reason I have not bought her Puffin’s versions of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield though they say they are unabridged. On the other hand, I loved children’s version of The Odyssey, the Tasks of Hercules and the Voyages of Jason when I was a child and it did not dampen my enthusiasm for reading the full translations when older.