This festive season, we asked Society Director, Professor Joe Smith, about what books he’ll be reading over the winter break. He’s chosen a dozen – twelve for the twelve days of Christmas – including some he’s already read, some he’s currently reading, and some he’ll spend time with over the holiday when the Society is closed:
1. 39 Ways to Save the Planet: Real World Solutions to Climate Change - And the People Who Are Making Them Happen; by Tom Heap, Penguin, 2021
This is ‘the book of the show’ and arose out of a BBC Radio 4 series that the Society was a very active partner in, generating further reading lists, teaching materials and linked events. The whole package felt like a really purposeful response to the moment were all in, and just the sort of collaboration the Society should be in the thick of. I’ve given away quite a few copies to friends who have looked a little ‘winded’ in the face of grim public health and environmental news. Tom and the excellent production team combed the planet for ideas that hold the potential to shift the dial in the right direction. The point is not to find ‘the one’ solution, but rather to show how climate change is generating positive change: it is catalysing a ferment of new technologies and other ideas that can cut emissions but also make the world a better place to live in. My book of the year. I hope the show and the book get recommissioned, both because they’re cheering and informative, and because we’re likely to need more than 39…
2. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead; by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018
A vegetarian feminist entomological Freudian whodunnit. This cocktail is even better than it sounds, a proper page-turner. Also it took me right back to the heart of a Polish forest in a year when that has felt a very long way away indeed.
3. Gold from the Stone: New and Selected Poems; by Lemn Sissay, Canongate Books, 2017
New and old work from a verbal alchemist. Sissay can be funny and challenging, whether pursuing questions about the nature of family and belonging, or by finding a cheeky way into provoking thought about consumption and other aspects of daily life. I much recommend his live performances too. Lemn talked and read his work at the opening to this year’s RGS-IBG Annual Conference, chaired by Uma Kothari FRGS, in a spectacular programme including talks and music that all responded to this year’s powerful theme of borders, borderlands and bordering.
4. Bicycle Diaries; by David Byrne, Viking Books, 2009
This little curio by, yes, ‘legendary’ musician, David Byrne, had sat on the shelf for a few years waiting for its moment. Talking Heads meets Brompton Bikes – what’s not to like? And in lockdown year the moment had definitely come. Byrne has been taking a folding bike with him all over the world whenever he tours for decades. This gets him close to the place, burns off some energy and he is left with a head full of new thoughts and images. Bicycle Diaries puts these on the page. It took me around the world’s cities by my favourite mode of transport, guided by one of the world’s great creative one-offs.
5. The Parakeeting of London: An adventure in Gonzo Ornithology; by Nick Hunt and Tim Mitchell, Paradise Road Books, 2019
Lovely expression of where conversation and curiosity can lead. The book is one result of a project between the wonderful travel writer Nick Hunt and photographer Tim Mitchell. They follow through with some of the origin stories (‘Jimi Hendrix’; ‘escaped from a film set’ (African Queen), and in so doing pay eloquent tribute to London: a truly global city. There’s a generous curiosity and quality of listening and watching at the heart of it that comes across like the best sort of qualitative social science. (And it looks like a really interesting small publisher too, focused on non-fiction books about London). I’ve recommended this to people before but is I think, more serious in intent than it appears, and deserves attention.
6. Shackleton: A biography; by Ranulph Fiennes, Penguin, 2021
I can’t think of anyone better placed to write with the same degree of first-hand authority about Shackleton’s expeditions than Ran Fiennes, FRGS. At the heart of it is a retelling of the truly extraordinary story of the loss of the Endurance, and the escape from the ice. The book offers very direct testimony of the kinds of hardships experienced, but also unpacks some of the complicated motivations that can sit behind such journeys. There are also some shrewd reflections on leadership and teamship. Quite apart from filling some gaps in my expedition history knowledge, it did get me to revise my definition of ‘crisis’, and to count my blessings.
7. Untold Stories; by Alan Bennett, Faber and Faber/Profile Books, 2005
I love a second-hand bookshop, and this called out to me like a long lost friend glimpsed across a crowded street. I’d read it before and in this often-demanding year was really pleased to warm up the relationship with Bennett’s diaries again. It offered funny, pleasant and wise company in a period when we have all had need of imaginary friends now and again. It’ll now go back into the ‘pre-loved’ book system.
8. The Joys of Excess; by Samuel Pepys, Penguin Books, 2011
A festive quick read that offers exactly what it promises. You get the sense that half the agricultural output of late seventeenth century Europe was driven to supplying Pepys with his victuals. The menu for a supper with his wife runs on for lines, and that’s just the poultry course (other meats follow). Didn’t know Parmesan was so popular at the time. Want to protect it from the Great Fire of London? Bury it in your yard with the wine.
Here are one or two I’ve not got to yet but are piled up waiting by the bedside:
9. Barkskins; by Annie Proulx, Scribner, 2016
A doorstop epic covering two centuries of colonist experiences in ‘New France’ (a big stretch of north America including a good slice of now-Canada). I’m half Canadian so it’s been suggested this will fill in some gaps. It’s a doorstop, so likely to keep me busy in the long nights ahead too.
10. A Thing In Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton; by Kate Colquhoun, Harper Perennial, 2003
Sometimes you give a book so you get to read it. But it took nearly twenty years and a melancholy house clearance to recover this one from my father’s bookshelf a few years back. We share/d an interest in gardens, engineering, and a deep love of Derbyshire, and all of that is here in spades in an account of the designer of revolutionary new glasshouses at Chatsworth House and ‘the Crystal Palace’.
And if you haven’t read it, you really should:
11. The History of the Countryside; by Oliver Rackham, W&N, 2020
Rackham was a heroic inter-disciplinarian, weaving ecological, historical and economic insights to make sense of the landscape. He also got his hands dirty in practical woodland initiatives, and was an exemplary researcher who was also a gifted, and highly original, teacher and communicator. This is one of those books that will literally have you looking at the world differently.
And I offered a cookbook last year, so this time:
12. Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the Table; by Maria Lemnis and Henryk Vitry, Interpress Warsaw 1981
I don’t know a Polish-British household that doesn’t have this on the shelf in English or in Polish editions. Some great recipes – particularly handy in winter. There are plenty of idiosyncratic history and anthropology notes thrown in: “a pan of gingerbread dough was often part of the dowry of Polish maidens”. With a reduced household this Christmas due to *sigh* ‘COVID conditions’, I’ve been missioned with producing Old Polish Christmas Gingerbread (“also used in rituals by the Slavs”).