What are you reading? – 13 June 2019

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

June 13, 2019
Books in a library
Source: iStock

Harriet Dunbar-Morris, dean of learning and teaching at the University of Portsmouth, is reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (Dover, 1995). “This 1854 account of the time that Thoreau lived alone in a secluded cabin is known as one of the most influential works of American literature, so I thought I ought to read it. It is a bit of a hair-shirt book, though – I found it very hard going at the beginning. I felt less alone when I saw on an online forum another reviewer ask ‘Does it get more substantial later?’ to which someone replied that ‘The best chapters… are towards the middle and the end, where he grows and adapts to the Walden environment and realizes things about HIMSELF, not his neighbors.’ So I am slowly but surely working my way through. Yet it may remain on my bedside table for some time, something to pick up and dip into when I haven't got an easier or more exciting novel to read.”


John Anchor, professor of international strategy at the University of Huddersfield, is reading Jeremy Paxman’s Great Britain’s Great War (Penguin, 2014). “A vast amount of literature has surveyed the causes, conduct and consequences of the First World War. Paxman’s book is different because it combines the well-known bigger picture with much less well-known anecdotes and individual stories which help explain how the country we recognise now came into being. He describes the progress of the war through the eyes and ears of those who lived through it – nurses, soldiers, factory workers, journalists and children. These actors and witnesses, if they survived, experienced immense social change: the vote, female emancipation, the loss of great estates as a result of inheritance tax, the rise of fascism and communism and a second world war. Their lives tell us as much as political analyses emphasising the role of ‘great men’. Even professional students of the Great War will find something new in this account.”


R. C. Richardson, emeritus professor of history at the University of Winchester, is reading Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded (Penguin, 2004). “Winchester, always enviably adept at handling a big subject, here deals with the causes, course and consequences of the worst volcanic eruption in recorded history. Krakatoa in Indonesia totally obliterated itself in August 1883 in mighty explosions that could be heard 3,000 miles away. Coastal settlements in Java and Sumatra were completely destroyed. More than 36,000 lost their lives in the ensuing tsunami. Islamic locals saw it as an angry sign from on high. Thanks to the electric telegraph, Morse code and Reuters news agency, the whole world soon knew of the disaster. Indeed the world directly experienced it through discoloration of the sun, moon and sky, temperature change, and westward-moving tidal waves that reached as far as the English Channel. The story is of compelling interest; Winchester’s telling of it is compulsively gripping, though at times self-indulgently wordy.”

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