Books read in September and August

I read “The Map of Knowledge” by Violet Moller and it blew me away, as the Americans say.

I was blown away because I was conscious yet again of how stunningly little I know and how much there is to know and how little time there is in a puny human life.

Moller encapsulates all of the lost ancient knowledge through the cities that valued it and protected it after the destruction of the Greek world. She follows Gallen, Euclid and Ptolemy texts as they escape the flames of the library of Alexandria , the Mongol destruction of the Abbasids culture and the Christian attempts to bury ancient learning in Western Europe.

Reading this wonderful book inspired me to watch the film “Agora”about the female philosopher and mathematician Hypatia who never stopped working on the true circulation of the planets even as bigotry and fundamentalism closed in on her and finally killed her as the Hellenic world took to Christianity.

I then read “The Swerve” by Stephen Greenblatt by which is a wonderful exploration of the survival of a single pre Christian book, which was neither about medicine nor mathematics. To my great shame I had never even heard of the original text which is “The Nature of Things “ ( De Rerum Natura) by Lucretius , but I had heard at least of the philosopher who inspired it: Epicurus.

“The Swerve” is an account of how a 15th century scholar called Poggio trawled through the libraries of European monasteries deliberately looking for forgotten ancient books. He struck gold when he discovered a copy of “The Nature of Things.” This poem written in about 50 BC explains that all life is made of atoms, that the Gods, if they exist at all, have not the slightest interest in humanity; that there is no reward in the afterlife and that our bodily atoms just return to be reused in the cycle of life.

This does not seem so remarkable an idea now to many people, but for more than two thousand years these ideas were incendiary and the survival of the book at all is extraordinary. Goldblatt shows how the discovery of this lost book made possible the rebirth of scholarship that is known as the Renaissance and how this laid the foundation for our modern world.

Of course I had to try reading “The Nature of Things “ for myself. It is written in wonderfully sinuous poetry and this was so unexpectedly beautiful that I almost could not take it seriously. When the poetry gives way to denser science I find myself giving up and returning to “Just William” but between these two poles of experience I will keep reading, stay sane and use that breathless perspective of learning and history to weather the coming winter .

Happy Reading!

The Hidden Life of Trees

I have just finished reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and I have to share it with people who love wildlife all over the world.  This book is the most extraordinary insight into the complex life of a forest and of trees everywhere.

Peter Wohlleben was a forester in Germany and his writings are based on 20 years of the daily observation of trees and wide reading in all of the latest scientific research. The result is an outstandingly  readable, humane, erudite and even witty book and like the blurb says on the cover  “a walk in the woods will never be the same again.”

I am going to resist the urge to simplify or summarise this wonderful book, as the digital world has a tendency to reduce the multifarious and complex into banal sound bites and snippets and this deserves real reading. It doesn’t have to be read cover to cover in one sitting, it can be dipped into and out of whenever the clouds roll over and you want to be indoors, but you will want to finish it and I have even decided where I want to buried based on this lovely, life affirming book!

Published 2016 by Greystone books

Escapism  –  to H.M. Scudamore .

 

Second hand book shops have always been my door at the back of the wardrobe and my way through the looking glass when the “real” world is too dull or too frightening to want to spend time in. In England in late June, I picked up this wonderful book from a  charity book shelf and everything about it beckoned me in.

Firstly the title “Garden of Delights” seemed to promise something half way between paradise and indulgent sticky sweet meats. Next the dark green cover hinted at rusticity and the central illustration at Art Deco decadence. The uneven rough cut edges to the thick pages were the result of a paper knife that had pains takingly slit open each sheet in study somewhere under gas light and then the anthology of poetry and prose inside spoke only of beauty in sweeping countryside and secluded gardens.

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It was exactly what I needed. Writers from Shakespeare to Cowper, George Elliot to Andrew Marvel  and Keats to the mysterious Melisande extolled the virtues of the garden, the beauty of the natural world and the ability of nature to consol and restore the spirit.

It was published in 1912 and as I dived into its resorative good sense and elegance, I felt a little guilty at such escapism 104 years later.

Then I looked at the inside cover and saw the neatly inscribed name : H.M. Scudamore  – 1941.  Who ever H.M. was during The Second World War he or she must have loved this book and needed it in far darker times than we know today.

And now in November the book, with its slightly foxed pages, blocked illustrations and musty smell, links me to HM ; to an optimistic England before the First World War; to a second hand book shop in 2016 and takes me out through the open window and on into a wet,winter French garden still  hoping to escape into a timeless spring.

 

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