The week in books

February 19, 2009

Maurice Bowra: A Life by Leslie Mitchell, emeritus fellow in modern history, University College, Oxford Oxford University Press, £25.00, ISBN 9780199295845

"(Bowra's) attitudes to science and scientists are particularly telling. His view was that 'any writer who embraced science died to his artistic calling'. Zola, Wells and Shaw, therefore, were not worth reading. He thought science would destroy Oxford and almost welcomed cuts in the university's funding, because it would stop 'vast building schemes for science ... and with luck some of the professors will commit suicide'."

Peter Wilby, New Statesman

The Fall of the West: The Slow Death of the Roman Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy, former research fellow, Cardiff University Orion, £25.00, ISBN 9780297845638

"Goldsworthy ponders why Rome eventually fell, and points to the increasing and obsessive bureaucratisation of the government, the self-interest of the political leaders and the 'target-oriented' culture of the state. The madness of our own health-and-safety legislation, it appears, is not so far from the mindset of the average later Roman emperor. Indeed, the implication of Goldsworthy's book is that we are now living in a modern version of a late-Roman world - and one about to collapse."

Mary Beard, The Sunday Times

Bears: A Brief History by Bernd Brunner, former lecturer, Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts and Culture and the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley

Yale University Press, £18.99, ISBN 9780300122992

"As this delightful but often discomfiting book shows, 'it has been the bear's fate to serve as a yardstick for humans'. Moving with a brisk tread between actual bear behaviour and the myths and tales that partner it, Brunner reminds us - with dry wit and great illustrations - that we get bears wrong. Above all, they're just not that into us. All the legends of man-bear interaction serve to hide a profound bearish 'indifference'. Pursue them too closely, and they may just care enough for a lethal attack - as the 'grizzly man', Timothy Treadwell, found in Alaska in 2003."

Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Holldobler, foundation professor, Arizona State University, and Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino university research professor in entomology, Harvard University Norton, £35.00, ISBN 9780393067040

"Five years in the making, The Superorganism draws on centuries of entomological research, charting much of what we know of the evolution, ecology and social organisation of ants ... They vary enormously in size and shape. The smallest are the leptanilline ants, which are so rarely encountered that few entomologists have ever seen one outside of a museum ... The largest ant in existence, in contrast, is the bullet ant, Dinoponera quadriceps (of which Holldobler and Wilson give abundant details, yet frustratingly neglect to inform us precisely how large these formidable-sounding creatures are)."

Tim Flannery, The New York Review of Books.

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