What are you reading? – 10 August 2017

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

August 10, 2017
Pile of books on park bench
Source: iStock

Karen McAulay, performing arts librarian and postdoctoral researcher, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, is reading Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (Simon and Schuster, 2016). “I enjoy nothing better than the history of a corpus of books, library or privately owned, with rare, historic manuscripts offering added appeal. Hammer tells the story of the remarkable survival against all odds (from termites to terrorists) of Timbuktu’s literary heritage, dispersed for centuries between literary families and hidden – even buried – in the most unlikely places. Thanks to one man’s vision, the priceless documents were located and logged, but it took an audacious plan and the bravery of many volunteers to rescue and relocate them more than once to ensure their ultimate survival in the face of Al Qaeda’s fiercest militants. Recommended.”


R. C. Richardson, emeritus professor of history, University of Winchester, is reading Isabella Bird’s My First Travels in North America (Dover, 2009). “Dating from 1856, when the author was only 24, this was the publishing debut of an intrepid and inquisitive travel writer and revealed at once her penetrating vision and eye for significant differences. She was overwhelmed by the speed of progress she witnessed, and the mosaic of regional variations, urban growth and the rapid expansion of railways and steamers all received much attention. So did America’s churches and church life, the extremely variable quality of hotels and the truculence of servants (quite different in temper from those with whom she was familiar in Britain). She condemned the ignorance and prejudices she sometimes encountered. Always a moralist, she was saddened by the depressed condition of the remnants of Native American tribes and the shameful prevalence of slavery.”


Sir David Eastwood, vice-chancellor, University of Birmingham, is reading John Buchan’s Sir Walter Scott. “We tend not to read books like this now, presuming that scholarship eclipses immersive critical sympathy. In the case of Buchan, it does not. Here is a fine writer’s homage to a great one, originally published in 1932, evoking the man, the time and the place with an ease that floats on deep reflection. Edinburgh’s animated public life and the Lowlands’ open majesty glisten in Buchan’s lyrical prose. Scott’s public life, his poetic beginnings, his tragedy, his stubborn nobility and the uneven grandeur of his literary achievement are explained and evaluated in a style that is as effortless as its learning is deep. A book to admire and to savour.”

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