Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book roundup

Saturday, 28 December, 2013

I’ve just finished reading The Music Instinct by Philip Ball. This is one of those books that immediately makes me think that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I learnt more about music by reading this one book than I probably knew just before I began.

I’ve never known much about music theory. I learnt to read music at school, but never became competent at playing any instrument, or gained any of the theoretical underpinnings of how music works. I have basically just been an uneducated listener. I never really understood why scales work the way they do; why there are tones and semitones. I didn’t understand chords or chord progressions or the principles of accompaniment, or of tension and resolution in musical composition. After reading The Music Instinct, for the first time in my life I feel as though a veil has been lifted from my eyes and I can, for the first time ever, see some of the underlying structure and theory behind music.

It’s more than just music theory too. There are chapters on how music elicits emotions, the psychology and cultural biases of how we interpret what we hear, and what, if anything, music might mean in some sense. It cites many psychological studies which reveal astounding and surprising things about how we perceive music. Every chapter and paragraph was full of fascinating information. I am going to keep a copy of this book handy in the future, and will no doubt refer to it again and again. I highly recommend it.

And speaking of book recommendations, I want to share some other books which I have enjoyed reading recently – and ask any of you reading this to recommend some to me. I will pre-empt some of this by saying that for this purpose I am really only interested in non-fiction. I’m interested in most subjects: history, geography, science, sport, music, travel…

My list:

  • Venice: Pure City, Peter Ackroyd. A wonderful picture of Venice and its history, which made my trip there last year immeasurably richer and more enjoyable.
  • The History of England, Volume 1: Foundation, Peter Ackroyd. I bought this after enjoying the above book by the same author, and found it a fascinating telling of the history of England up to the rise of the Tudor dynasty. I recently got the second volume and it’s next on my to-read list.
  • Leviathan, or The Whale, Philip Hoare. Everything you ever wanted to know about whales and more, told in a compelling style. We all love these creatures, and this book explores that fascination.
  • On the Map, Simon Garfield. A series of vignettes about various maps through history, interspersed with information about how maps are made, what they tell us, and what makes them so fascinating.
  • Ingenious Pursuits, Lisa Jardine. The story of the scientific revolution – basically a history of science around the 17th century, covering names like Newton, Halley, Hooke, Boyle, Cassini, Huygens, Leeuwenhoek.
  • Atlantic, Simon Winchester. Tales of the first ocean that western civilisation encountered, how it was explored, crossed, yet remained untamed, including its roles in commerce, migration, and war.

Venice snapshots

Monday, 20 February, 2012

I’m reading Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd and enjoying it a lot. I visited Venice briefly back in 2001, and my wife and I are heading there again for a longer stay later this year. I wanted to get some of the city’s history under my belt before seeing it again, and I’m really glad I found this book. Here are some snippets I couldn’t help reproducing (from different chapters):

The concept of the maze or labyrinth is an ancient one. It is a component of earth magic that, according to some authorities, is designed to baffle evil spirits. The Chinese believed that demons could only ever travel in straight lines. It has also been said that the dead were deposited at the centre of mazes. That is why they retain their power over the human imagination. The labyrinth of classical myth is that place where the young and the innocent may be trapped or killed. But the true secret of the Venetian maze is that you can never observe or understand it in its totality. You have to be within its borders to realise its power. You cannot see it properly from the outside. You have to be closed within its alleyways and canals to recognise its identity.

The scheme of house numbers is difficult to understand; in each sestiere they begin at number one and then snake through every street until they finish. They reach into the thousands without the benefit of any reference to street or square. The names affixed to the streets seem in any case to be different to the names printed in the maps of the city. In fact the reality of Venice bears no relation to any of the published guides and maps. The shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. So the network of Venice induces mystery. It can arouse infantile feelings of play and game, wonder and terror. It is easy to believe that you are being followed. Your footstep echo down the stone labyrinth. The sudden vista of an alley or a courtyard takes you by surprise; you may glimpse a shadow or a silhouette, or see someone standing in a doorway. Walking in Venice often seems as unreal as a dream or, rather, the reality is of a different order. There are times when the life of the past seems very close – almost as if it might be around the next corner. The closeness of the past is embodied in the closeness of the walls and ways all around you. Here you can sense the organic growth of the city, stone by stone. You can sense the historical process of the city unfolding before you. There is a phrase, in T. S. Eliot’s Gerontion, to the effect that history has many cunning passageways. These are the passages of Venice.

Anyone who has tried navigating the calle of Venice will understand what Ackroyd is saying there. I found this such a compelling passage that I just had to savour it, keep it, and share it.

And then today I ran across this:

There is no scene in Venice that has not already been painted. There is no church, or house, or canal, that has not become the subject of an artist’s brush or pencil. Even the fruit in the market looks as if it has been stolen from a still life. Everything has been “seen” before. The traveller seems to be walking through oils and watercolours, wandering across paper and canvas.

How wonderful is that? Every chapter is filled with marvellous writing and imagery like this. It’s really getting me in the mood for our trip.

Cricket commentary du jour

Wednesday, 4 January, 2012

From today’s radio commentary of the Second Test, Australia v India, from the Sydney Cricket Ground. Guest commentators Harsha Bhogle (from India) and Danny Morrison (from New Zealand, specifically Wellington) were sharing the microphone.

Danny: And back home everyone talks about my hobbit feet.
Harsha: Hobbit feet? That’s a curious expression. What do you mean?
Danny: You know, hobbit feet. Big and hairy.
Harsha: The only hobbit I know is this book I studied back when I was in school… Bilbo Baggins, was that him?
Danny: Yeah, that’s the one.
Harsha: And there were dwarves… Ori, Dori, Nori… Oin, Gloin… and some others I can’t remember.
Danny: Yeah yeah, that’s it!
Harsha: So… hobbit feet??
Danny: Feet like a hobbit. All big and hairy.
Harsha: I remember that book because we had to study it for months.
Danny: They’re making the film of it. In Wellington.
Harsha: Really?! I must keep an eye out for that.

Leviathan

Tuesday, 14 June, 2011

There’s something wonderful about cracking open a new book for the first time, after finishing the previous one. A sense of expectation, the feeling of new knowledge about to be uncovered.

I’ve just finished The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, a survey of British science in the Romantic era, beginning around 1769 and ending around 1835, told in biographical snippets of the pre-eminent natural philosophers of the day. Wonderful book; I didn’t want it to end. I’m now seeking a book in a similar style that will carry me onwards from 1835. This book was shortlisted for the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2009.

But I’ve just started Leviathan by Philip Hoare, a book about whales, which won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2009. So yeah, I’m expecting great things. I’m sure it won’t disappoint.

The thrill of opening to the first page and reading the first few words was spine-tingling enough to prompt this blog post. And that’s really all I have to say.