What are you reading? – 15 September 2016

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

September 15, 2016
Row of books stacked side-by-side
Source: iStock

Sir Martyn Poliakoff, professor of chemistry, University of Nottingham, is reading Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa and Mary Virginia Orna’s The Lost Elements: The Periodic Table’s Shadow Side (Oxford University Press, 2014). “Unusually, you’ve caught me reading a chemistry book for relaxation! But it’s a fascinating one. Many people, including me, are intrigued by the hunt for new elements and how they are named. It’s a very live issue. Seven new names have been added to the periodic table since 2008; four this year. What this book describes is all the mistakes that have been made by researchers who wrongly believed that they had isolated new elements. And there are a lot of such researchers – it’s a fat book! Best of all is the comprehensive index that lists hopeful, unused or erroneous names from Accretium to Zunzenium via Gnomium and Mussolinium.”

Angie Hobbs, professor of the public understanding of philosophy, University of Sheffield, is reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions, 2012). “This, the first of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, depicts with both affection and unflinching clarity the comforts, frictions and labyrinthine complexities of a long friendship between two women in a time of great social change. We first meet Lila and Lenù as children in the 1950s backstreets of a city pulsating with sensuous life, but where danger and death are also always present. I used to live in Naples, and Ferrante wonderfully evokes the visceral allure and idiosyncrasies of the place. She handles a large cast of characters with skill, humour and compassion, while never losing sight of the two intertwined stories that form the heart of the work.”

Richard Howells, professor of cultural sociology, King’s College London, is reading Claire Fox’s ‘I Find That Offensive!’ (Biteback, 2016). “Whichever way you look at it, Fox’s short, sharp book makes for a white-knuckle read. It is a polemic for free speech and against safe spaces, no-platforming, ‘generation snowflake’ and the politics of being offended. Other targets include ‘competitive victimhood’, trigger warnings and censorious claims that there is ‘nothing to debate’. Fox’s book is especially relevant to higher education today, and comes (importantly yet unpredictably, perhaps, given her argument) from a public intellectual with a distinctly left- rather than right-wing background. The cause of any consequent knuckle-discoloration will depend on whether or not the reader agrees with her. For the record, I (mostly) do. Those on the other side of what Fox calls the ‘offence wars’, of course, are much more likely to be offended.”

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