The power of the anecdote

On the effectiveness of anecdotes and understatement in conveying catastrophic events.

In the latest edition of The London Review of Books, James C. Scott reviews three books about China's disastrous 1958–61 famine.

How can you possibly convey the horror of a famine which led to the deaths of an estimated 30–45 million people, and whose primary cause was the political ideology of an all-powerful leader (Mao)? Scott takes a leaf out of W.G. Sebald's book by including an understated anecdote that gives us pause for thought:

In the Great Leap Famine, the Entomological Research Institute of China's Academy of Sciences helpfully supplied lists of the protein and fat content of many insects: dried larva of the corn borer, dried fly maggot, dried dung beetle, termites, locusts and silkworm pupae, together with recipes for their preparation.

This sentence, complete with Sebaldian silkworm reference, could have been lifted straight out of The Rings of Saturn. In many ways, a matter-of-fact aside about bureaucratic advice on maggot and silkworm nutrition tells us far more about the famine than detailed descriptions and statistics ever could.

My 2012 reading challenge (and the worst book of the year)

On a reading challenge and a dreadful read.

I read 24 books in 2011: two per month, on average; one every 15 days. Not bad, but hardly earth-shattering.

This year, I set myself a challenge—a private new year's resolution, if you like—to read 36 books: one every 10 days. The only ‘cheat’ I allowed myself was that Granta, the so-called magazine of new writing, to which I am a subscriber, counts as a book under my rules. I don't care what they say, Granta isn't a magazine. Oh yes, and, for the avoidance of doubt, reading books on my Kindle™ counts as well: an ebook is still a book.

One week into December, and I'm slightly ahead of schedule: 25 days to go; 1½ books still to read. I'm currently reading Diana Athill's Instead of a Book. Despite the title, that counts as a book as well.

Yes, I know it's not the number of books you read that's important, but whether they're any good. The whole point of the 36-book challenge, though, was to make sure I read more books this year. With the distractions of websites to maintain, books to write, and tweets to tweet, it's all too easy to let your book-reading slip.

As in previous years, I've maintained a list of books I read during 2012 on my Gruts website. Unlike in previous years, however, this year I planned, on 31st December, to nominate my Book of the Year. That is, the book I most enjoyed reading during the year, irrespective of when it was actually published (although any old favourites I re-read during the year were barred from nomination).

Two thoughts have just occurred to me, however:

  1. I should really nominate my book of the year before Christmas, just in case anyone wants to take my recommendation on trust and buy (or ask for) the book as a Christmas present;
  2. I already know what my nomination for Book of the Year is going to be, so why hang about?

I'll announce (and explain) my nomination in my next post.

In the meantime, I thought I might take this opportunity to nominate my worst book of the year. I'm not in the habit of slagging off books just because I don't happen to like them, but one book I read in 2012 was so spectacularly bad that some sort of recognition seemed entirely in order.

My nomination for  Worst Book of the Year 2012 goes to Darwin and Lady Hope: the Untold Story, by L.R. Croft, which attempts (very unconvincingly) to resurrect the long-discredited myth of Charles Darwin's deathbed conversion to evangelical Christianity.

Time is running out. Entropy approaches. We get to read precious few books in our depressingly short lifetimes. It irks me that Darwin and Lady Hope ended up on my reading list. Remember: I read this book so you wouldn't have to.

You can thank me later.

Welcome to my other blog

Why have one blog, when you can have five?

…in fact, make that ‘Welcome to my other other other other blog’.

My blogs have a habit of bifurcating to reflect my different interests. I'm guessing this latest speciation event will be the last, but I've guessed that before.

For my Darwin, science and history of science writing, I have my Friends of Charles Darwin blog, and I occasionally contribute to the HMS Beagle Project blog. For my nature writing, I have my natural history journal, Life's Grandeur [Postscript: since discontinued]. For my idiosyncratic humour and rants, I have Gruts.

Which I guess means this new blog is going to be all about my reading, writing and photography.

Hey! Why have one blog, when you can have five? website launched

A new website dedicated to my writing and photography.

I decided that I needed a dedicated website for my writing and photography. I finally have my very own vanity URL:

The site is somewhat sparse at the moment, but I'll be adding more content over the coming months.

Other than the actual website launch, the main item of news is that I have finally decided to go public with some information about my book.

LRB letter: ‘Darwin’s Flatulence’

How Charles Darwin's legendary flatulence wasn't all it's cracked up to be.

The following letter to The London Review of Books was in response to an article entitled Gutted by Steven Shapin, which reviewed A Modern History of the Stomach: Gastric Illness, Medicine and British Society, 1800-1950 by Ian Miller. The letter appeared in the 28th July 2011 edition of the LRB.

Darwin's Flatulence

Steven Shapin writes that Darwin's uncontrollable retching and farting seriously limited his public life (LRB, 30 June).

Some years ago, to my delight, I worked out that the great man's full name, Charles Robert Darwin, is an anagram of ‘rectal winds abhorrer’.

Unfortunately for my anagram, the meanings of words, like species, can evolve. On the rare occasions that Darwin mentioned his gaseous problems to friends, he always used the word ‘flatulence’. Nowadays, we think of flatulence as being synonymous with farting, but, in Darwin's day, it simply meant (as it technically still does) an accumulation of gases in the alimentary canal.

While I'm sure that Darwin, like the rest of us, must have vented his excess gas one way or the other, there is no reason to believe that his farts were uncontrollable.

Richard Carter
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire