Richard Carter A merged feed of Sidelines blog posts, Newsletters and Reviews from en-gb Richard Carter Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 17 • 1869’ Tue, 07 Nov 2023 16:38:45 +0000
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 17 • 1869

The seventeenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1869. During this year, Darwin continued his research into human evolution, human and animal emotions, and sexual selection. This would eventually result in two major books: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. During the year, Darwin also revised On the Origin of Species for its fifth edition.

The year 1869 saw a major about-face by Darwin’s friend Alfred Russel Wallace. Although Wallace had arrived at the idea of natural selection independently of Darwin, he began to entertain serious doubts that it could explain human intellect and morality without the involvement of some higher power. Darwin was deeply distressed by Wallace’s apostasy, although the two remained on friendly and respectful terms.

Highlights from Darwin’s correspondence for 1869 include:

  • A letter from a women’s suffrage campaigner about parrots.
  • Darwin being ‘disgusted’ at the number of changes required for the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, bearing in mind the previous edition had been published only two years earlier. He later observed, if he lived another twenty years, he would no doubt have to modify Origin and his views a great deal, but “it is a beginning, & that is something”.
  • Wallace announcing he is dedicating what will become his most famous book, The Malay Archipelago, to Darwin. And Darwin saying this honour is something for his children’s children to be proud of. He later sent Wallace more feedback about the book.
  • Darwin wondering how news of new nectar spreads through bee-hives, but supposing it is not communicated by the bees. (How he would have loved to know about the waggle-dance!)
  • Darwin’s enthusiastic letter to James Croll regarding Croll’s hypothesis of asynchronous ice-periods in the northern and southern hemispheres.
  • George Henslow’s strange hypothesis that the colouration of offspring can be affected by what their mother saw while pregnant.
  • Wallace on the results of John Jenner Weir’s caterpillar experiments supporting Wallace’s hypothesis of protective colouration. (More here.)
  • Thomas Henry Huxley’s cartoon of himself as a riled dog.
  • Darwin summing up the main theoretical changes in the fifth edition of Origin.
  • Darwin answering a questionnaire, saying his education only really began aboard HMS Beagle.
  • Wallace warning Darwin about his forthcoming article expressing certain limitations on natural selection regarding human evolution, and Darwin’s joking response, “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child”.
  • Darwin, having subsequently read Wallace’s article, declaring ‘[I] differ grevously from you’. He goes on to express his disappointment in more detail to their mutual friend and inspiration Charles Lyell.
  • Darwin’s thoughts on the term ‘struggle for existence’.
  • Darwin being full of praise for Wallace’s recent review of two new editions of works by Lyell, and reporting ‘a baddish fall’ from his horse.
  • One of a number of occasional letters to Darwin from religious nutters.
  • Darwin’s first correspondence from the head of a Yorkshire lunatic asylum regarding the expression of emotions by various patients. See also: here, here, and here.
  • Darwin asking his American friend Asa Gray to observe the colours of German men’s beards.
  • …and asking another correspondent to observe the expression of emotions in women who are in labour.
  • …and hearing from another correspondent who has provoked two Indian locals into a near-fight so he can observe their body-language for Darwin.
  • Darwin enquiring about efficacy of “Pulvermachers Volta-Electric Chain bands” in relieving dyspepsia and nervous weakness.
  • Darwin receiving a poem taking the piss out of teleology.
  • Darwin defending his provisional (and incorrect) hypothesis of pangenesis in the popular science press.
  • Darwin’s best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, being greatly disappointed by the new science journal ‘Nature’.
  • Hooker explaining his reluctance to accept a knighthood.
  • A correspondent suggesting a joint photograph be taken of Darwin and Wallace. Sadly, it was never to be. (Or maybe it was!)

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
A brace of raptors Wed, 11 Oct 2023 19:52:35 +0100 Jen spotted the local barn owl flying through our garden on Saturday evening. We hadn’t seen it for a while so kept an eye out for it the same time on Sunday. At one point, out the corner of my eye, I caught a split-second glimpse of something light coloured and owl sized shooting past the window. Or, at least, I thought I did. So I rushed outside. Sure enough, there was the barn owl perched about 200 metres away on a fence post on the far side of the field behind the house. I decided to stand perfectly still and wait, and was rewarded a minute later when the owl launched from its perch, flew directly towards me, then swerved and hovered about ten metres directly in front of me in search of a vole. After twenty seconds or so, it headed back across the field, perched on a different fence post, then, about a minute later, dived suddenly into the field on the far side of the wall. It did not re-emerge, so I’m guessing it had made a kill and was enjoying the proceeds. Close-encounters with a barn owls are always a thrill.

The following morning, Jen spotted a male sparrowhawk on our garden wall. It was tucking into some hapless victim that turned out to have been one of the local goldfinches. I managed to sneak outside with my camera. The sparrowhawk was clearly aware I was there, so I kept a discreet distance, inching along the patio to get a better angle. I had to deliberately over-expose to compensate for the horrendous backlighting, and remove a lot of grain in post-processing, but I was pretty pleased with the results.

A good reason not to write in books Tue, 03 Oct 2023 12:15:20 +0100 I spend a lot of time making notes from my reading. I’ve even made notes from my reading of books about making notes from one’s reading. Have I lost you yet?

Many people who write or otherwise opine about making notes from your reading say you should underline or highlight favourite or key passages and make brief personal observations in the margins. They claim defacing books in this manner is a sign you’re engaging with the text. Here, for example, are Adler and van Doren in their classic How to Read a Book:

Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

I’m all for fully engaging with books, and for paying respect to authors—even authors with non-male pronouns—but writing in books is definitely not for me. I admit this is in no small part down to my having been brought up to believe only a monster would do such a thing. But there’s more to it than that.

My preferred method for making notes while reading physical books is to use an index-card as a bookmark and to make notes on that. I later write up these notes in more detail in my electronic note-making system. Conversely, when I read an ebook on my Kindle, I often use the Kindle’s highlighting feature. I tend not to make free-text notes on my Kindle as doing so is a total pain in the arse. When I’ve finished reading an ebook, I import my highlights and occasional free-text notes into my note-making system.

Laptop desk
Making index-card notes

The more time I’ve spent cross-linking and developing my electronic notes, the more it’s become apparent the notes I make from physical books are superior to those I make from ebooks. Writing on an index-card provides genuinely useful friction. Before I put pen to card, I need to decide whether it’s actually worth the effort—especially bearing in mind I’m eventually going to have to transcribe the hand-written note into my electronic system. In other words, the pain of having to write a note by hand then re-key it into my system provides an important element of quality control. Conversely, the ease of highlighting on my Kindle means I tend to highlight far too much, so my electronic system ends up being populated with extraneous notes.

None of which, I concede, is any sort of argument against making highlights and hand-written notes on the actual pages of physical books. But my different modes of highlighting and annotating, depending on whether I’m reading a physical book or an ebook, provide an interesting contrast when it comes to re-reading books.

Some people claim seeing your old notes and annotations when you return to a favourite book enhances the experience. I beg to differ. Whenever I re-read a book on my Kindle, I find myself constantly distracted by my previous highlights. Lovely chap though he undoubtedly was, I don’t want Former Me telling me which bits of the book are most noteworthy. It’s like watching a film with some bore whose seen it before who keeps blurting out, “Ooh! This next bit’s good! Watch this!” I’m not kidding: I almost abandoned a recent re-reading of what is a strong contender for my favourite book of all time because of all my previous Kindle highlights. They were totally ruining the experience. In the end, I had to resort to the rather drastic and laborious process of manually deleting my old highlights one-by-one. (I then stupidly opened the Kindle app on a different device, it re-synched, and all my carefully deleted highlights magically re-appeared, requiring me to delete them all again! They have returned several times since.)

Re-reading a physical book involves no such issues to spoil my pleasure. The book’s pages are unsullied by Former Me. I still have my earlier thoughts available on my index-card bookmark, which I always file inside the book, but they don’t distract me from my reading. They’re there if I want them, but they’re not getting in the way.

Surely one of the best reasons for re-reading a book is to try to see it through fresh eyes. How can you possibly hope to achieve this when Former You has covered its pages with what they thought was noteworthy? What were you: some kind of monster? Your thoughts about a book belong in your note-making system; not scrawled across its pages.

Anglesey 2023 Sun, 01 Oct 2023 16:17:14 +0100 Jen and I paid our annual early September visit to my beloved Anglesey last month. Our week-long stays don’t vary much: we repeat favourite walks; we eat at the same restaurants; and I spend a couple of hours before breakfast, and a couple in the afternoon, sitting on my favourite rock, gazing out to sea.

But this year began with something of a shock. After unpacking, I immediately headed down to my favourite rock, only to discover it had moved! Only by about a metre, but a major geological event as far as I was concerned. The rock is—or had been—part of the limestone bedrock. But, since my last visit, it had become detached, I’m guessing during a winter storm, and had been shifted slightly inland. Sitting on my newly relocated favourite rock gave me an entirely different perspective on life. I wonder if it will still be there next year.

My favourite rock has moved!
My favourite rock (foreground, left) and the ‘home scar’ of bare limestone where it used to reside (centre).

The weather was relentlessly sunny and calm for the entire week. I’m hoping this, rather than avian flu, explained the total absence of razorbills, which might have moved farther out to sea. But there were no Sandwich terns either, which was worrying. I spotted a few gannets, but they kept well away from shore this year. There were, however, cormorants and shags aplenty, oystercatchers, gulls, occasional egrets and herons, rock pipits, a few late swallows and house martins, and linnets. No wheatears, though, which was disappointing.

Shag, Anglesey

What I did see most days, however, was harbour porpoises. I’ve never had so many sightings. I saw them most days. Perhaps the calm sea made them easier to spot. They seldom approached the rocks, but I did get some nice close-up shots of one of them from my favourite walk along the north coast.

Harbour porpoise, Anglesey
Harbour porpoise

The constant dilemma when out walking was whether I should have a telephoto lens on my camera in case some interesting animal passed by, or whether I should have a wide-angle lens on to capture the sweeping views. I tended to stick with the telephoto, so, of course, Sod’s Law dictated that, on one of the few occasions I switched to wide-angle, a flock of twenty-five agitated choughs appeared out of nowhere. Seconds later, I spotted the source of their agitation: a female peregrine falcon hanging in the wind not twenty metres in front of me. I managed to grab a shot of the choughs, but sadly the falcon was a mere speck when viewed through the totally inappropriate lens, and was soon chased off by courageous gulls.

Choughs, Anglesey
Agitated choughs

Macabre highlight of the trip was finding the decaying corpse of grey seal pup on a pebbly beach. A proper nature writer would no doubt have collected the nearly fleshless skull as a magnificent trophy for their study, but this particular skull wasn’t nearly fleshless enough, as far as I was concerned, and was covered in green bottle blowflies, so I ended up taking only photographs home with me.

Dead grey seal, Anglesey
Grey seal skull and blowfly
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part 2 • 1868’ Wed, 27 Sep 2023 17:44:27 +0100
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part II • July–December 1867

The sixteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1868. Uniquely for this 30-volume collection, Darwin wrote and received so many letters in 1868 that they had to be split across two physical books (published as a pair). The following refers to part two of volume 16, covering the months July–December 1868.

In the second half of 1868, Darwin continued his research into human evolution, human emotions and sexual selection. Near the end of the year, he also began work on revising On the Origin of Species for its fifth edition. Highlights from this period include:

  • Darwin reporting that, although he has had the manuscript for the next volume of his planned ‘big book’ on species almost ready for several years, he has decided to amuse himself by writing a ‘short volume’ on Man;
  • Thomas Henry Huxley enquiring on behalf of Prof. Kühne about the ‘possibility of paying his devotions at the Shrine of Dr. Darwin’. (The letter is illustrated with a cartoon by Huxley.)
  • Louis Agassiz explaining to Darwin that his disagreement with Darwin is not personal;
  • Alfred Russel Wallace’s detailed objections to female choice in sexual selection (as opposed to protective colouration through camouflage) as an explanation of the different colours of certain male and female birds—and Darwin’s response;
  • Darwin’s later letter to Wallace on the same subject, saying: ‘I grieve to differ from you, & it actually terrifies me & makes me constantly distrust myself’—and Wallace’s reply;
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker reporting he has been selling photographs, chiefly of Darwin, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science on behalf of photographer Julia Margaret Cameron;
  • Darwin opining, ‘I am not sure whether it wd not be wisest for scientific men quite to ignore the whole subject of religion’;
  • An affectionate letter from the ageing anti-evolutionist Adam Sedgwick, who had taken the young Darwin on a geological tour of North Wales, and Darwin’s reply;
  • Darwin declaring, ‘I believe that almost every book wd be improved by condensation’;
  • Darwin claiming to be trembling at Ernst Haeckel’s boldness at proposing a detailed evolutionary tree, but agreeing with Thomas Henry Huxley that ‘some one must be bold enough to make a beginning in drawing up tables of descent’;
  • Darwin complaining he is ‘undergoing the purgatory of sitting for hours to Thomas Woolner’ for a bust sculpture;
  • Darwin humorously referring to claims by physicists that the world is not old enough for his theory of evolution to be correct: ‘The brevity of the world troubles me, on account of the pre-silurian creatures which must have lived in numbers during endless ages, else my views wd be wrong, which is impossible — Q.E.D.—’;
  • Darwin, while working on the latest edition, complaining he is sick of correcting ‘that everlasting Origin’;
  • Darwin reporting he has installed Joseph Dalton Hooker’s photograph over his chimney piece so he will never be bold enough to make theoretical wriggles under his gaze. (Making such wriggles was a running joke between the two friends.)
  • Darwin complaining about Richard Owen misquoting him, saying ‘he puts words from me in inverted commas & alters them’;
  • Darwin on the difficulty of reconciling evolution with the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient creator;
  • Ernst Haeckel jokingly comparing his newborn son to a ‘quadrumane’.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part 1 • 1868’ Wed, 27 Sep 2023 17:41:24 +0100
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part I • January–June 1867

The sixteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1868. Uniquely for this 30-volume collection, Darwin wrote and received so many letters in 1868 that they had to be split across two physical books (published as a pair). The following refers to part one of volume 16, covering the months January–June 1868.

January 1868 finally saw the publication of Darwin’s two-part book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. Darwin then immediately began work of what he believed at the time would be a ‘short essay’ on human evolution. But, as so often happened with Darwin’s work, its scope rapidly expanded. His planned essay was to become two major works: his two-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

Highlights of Darwin’s early 1868 correspondence include:

  • Darwin confidently predicting the idea of common descent will soon become universally accepted—while expressing bemusement at the French in particular for currently failing to accept it;
  • Darwin expressing delight at his son George’s recent success in mathematics at Cambridge;
  • Darwin receiving an indescribably bizarre letter seemingly associating evolutionary history with the (English) names of certain localities and countries—or, at least, that’s what I think it’s trying to do;
  • Darwin asking a favour ‘which will appear the oddest ever asked’ about observing elephants crying. (Answer: They don’t cry!)
  • Darwin wistfully remarking, ‘What a splendid pursuit Natural History would be if it was all observing & no writing.’
  • Darwin’s old Beagle shipmate Bartholomew Sulivan sending him a photograph of a group of four Fuegian boys, one of whom is the son of ‘Jemmy Button’ (one of the Fuegians who travelled aboard Beagle. See also Darwin’s reply;
  • Darwin recalling ‘an extraordinary account of male[ moth]s finding females at great distances’. See also subsequent received correspondence (1, 2) suggesting the males are attracted by scent;
  • Darwin expecting a ‘blowing up’ from his friend Thomas Henry Huxley regarding his (we now know, incorrect) unpublished hypothesis of pangenesis, and later being amused by Huxley’s joke ‘Genesis is difficult to believe, but Pangenesis is a deuced deal more difficult.’
  • Darwin observing (post publication) ‘It seems that the poor infant Pangenesis will expire, unblessed & uncussed by the world, but I have faith in a future & better world for the poor dear child!’
  • Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace politely disagreeing in a series of letters about the role of (female-choice) sexual selection versus camouflage in the different colourations of male and female birds;
  • Darwin expressing distrust in himself for disagreeing with Wallace’s view that birds’ nest-building is a learnt activity, rather than instinctive;
  • naturalist John Jenner Weir informing Darwin of experimental results supporting Wallace’s hypothesis that brightly coloured caterpillars are rejected as food by birds;
  • Darwin describing himself in a photograph as ‘a hideous affair—merely a modified, hardly an improved, Gorilla’;
  • Darwin sending his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker grass seeds recovered from locust dung for identification (and Hooker’s response);
  • avid reader Darwin complaining, ‘It drives me mad & I know it does you too, that one has no time for reading anything beyond what must be read: my room is encumbered with unread books.—‘;
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker being horrified at having somehow forgotten to mention the birth of his latest daughter;
  • Darwin informing the perpetual curate of the village of Downe about the dodgy dealings of the latest incumbent.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book Review: ‘One Midsummer’s Day’ by Mark Cocker Tue, 29 Aug 2023 13:46:55 +0100
‘One Midsummer’s Day’ by Mark Cocker

The title of this book sets the scene: it takes place on a single midsummer’s day. A day which Mark Cocker spends mostly in his Derbyshire garden, gazing upwards, observing one of his favourite birds: the swift. But the subtitle reveals the book’s true scope: Cocker also explores the story of life on earth, in which his beloved swifts, like the rest of us, play a small but significant part.

I’m very much a fan of writing that explores global themes in a parochial context. That shows how the things you encounter on your local patch are part of a much bigger story. Indeed, it’s the same approach I adopted in my own book, On the Moor. So there was never any danger I wouldn’t thoroughly enjoy this book.

In addition to celebrating one of the world’s most remarkable families of birds, Cocker heads off on all sorts of tangents, exploring such diverting topics as migration, convergent evolution, photosynthesis, the evolutionary history of plants, avian anatomy, pollination, animal communication, symbiosis, taxonomy, etymology, folklore, and environmentalism. It’s a truly entertaining read.

One of Cocker’s key messages—and one I heartily endorse—is that, rather than destroying our sense of wonder at the natural world, scientific knowledge enhances our appreciation of it. Or, as Cocker puts it:

Mystery and knowledge and wonder and love are necessary to one another. [… K]nowledge is not a barrier to the depths of our encounters, but actually necessary to the fullness of our relations.

Couldn’t agree more!

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Disclosure: Mark Cocker provided some lovely blurb for my book On the Moor. I have since met him, and consider him a personal friend.

Book Review: ‘Writing Tools’ by Roy Peter Clark Sat, 26 Aug 2023 14:01:40 +0100
‘Writing Tools’ by Roy Peter Clark

This is an excellent book.

I have read many books about writing. Alongside William Zinger’s On Writing Well, this is one of the most useful. Roy Peter Clark provides dozens of ‘tools’ to improve your writing in clear, practical language.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Affinities’ by Brian Dillon Sat, 26 Aug 2023 14:01:07 +0100
‘Affinities’ by Brian Dillon

Having enjoyed Brian Dillon’s previous books Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, I very much looked forward to this collection of essays exploring what it means to feel an affinity with a particular visual image.

The essays on various images with which Dillon feels an affinity mostly worked for me. Coincidentally, I also happened to feel a personal affinity with a few of the images described by Dillon. In particular, as a recent new (mild) sufferer myself, I found his description of the scintillating scotomas of migraine auras particularly fascinating. Most of the other images explored are of a distinctly more artistic nature, and the essays about them are excellent reading.

Dillon also offers ten separate essays investigating what it means to feel an affinity with an image. These were, to me, less interesting and, indeed, felt more like filler. But don’t let that put you off this entertaining book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
‘Lesser’ truth v artistic licentiousness Mon, 21 Aug 2023 19:43:38 +0100 My left knee would benefit from trigger warnings. It is spring-loaded and ready to jerk at the merest hint of postmodernist factual relativism. It also clicks when I’m climbing stairs.

In the current edition of the Literary Review (paywalled link), author Gillian Tindall writes:

When photography was evolving, it was thought that it might ‘capture’ the heart of life in a new way, only for it to be found that each shot seized just a static moment. When a renowned photographer snapped Henry Kissinger, he hoped to show something of the man’s ‘anger, ineptitude, strength, vanity, isolation’. But all that appeared on film was a ‘defensive’ motionless figure. A painted portrait can contain far more of the essential person than a photograph can.

I would be the last to deny there are many wonderful painted portraits out there. But the claim that paintings can somehow give a far more accurate representation of their subjects than simple snapshots initiated a knee-jerk that made me quite forget the immediately preceding preposterous suggestion that photography had failed in its promise to capture the heart of life in a new way.

True, photoshopped manipulations notwithstanding, the camera can only capture what’s actually there to be seen. But isn’t that a good thing? If Henry Kissinger appears ‘defensive’ in a particular photograph, perhaps that’s because he was acting uncharacteristically defensively at the time. Doesn’t that, in itself, tell us something interesting about his inner character? Or perhaps he was feeling perfectly at ease, or angry, or inept, and we, the viewers of the photograph, are simply misreading his body-language. But the interpretation of the photograph, valid or otherwise, is, as it should be, down to us.

To pretend to convey some unphotographable essential person, the portrait painter can only embellish with their own interpretation of their subject, be it valid or otherwise. Then we, the viewers of the portrait, get to interpret the painter’s interpretation. In which case, we are one step further removed from the original in the interpretation process. We’re playing a game of Chinese whispers at two degrees of interpretation—or misinterpretation.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Surely the whole point of art is for artists to try to convey their personal impressions of the world, and for the likes of you and me to engage with artists’ works by interpreting them in our own unique ways. But it strikes me as nonsense to claim a work of art created to convey one individual’s perception of another human being provides a more accurate rendition of their ‘essential person’ than a simple photograph. What if the artist’s interpretation of their subject’s essential person is wrong? What if the subject means different things to different portrait painters? How do we know which one is capturing the true essence of the person? And what if different artists happen to agree? How do we know their idea of the subject’s true essence isn’t down to some common misperception, or a pandering to stereotype?

Take Jesus. In Florence, I encountered more painted masterpieces of our divinely appointed saviour than Pontius Pilate had larks’ tongues dinners. Masterpieces by Giotto, Leonardo, Verrocchio, Giordano, and a bunch of other dead canvas-daubers whose names ended in ‘o’. Not being at all of a religious persuasion, I wasn’t particularly moved by any of these works, although I did appreciate the artists’ craftsmanship. If I hadn’t already formed my own (no doubt, incorrect) interpretation of Jesus, what would I have gathered from these assorted masterpieces? I might well have concluded Jesus was a ginger-headed western European with an inexplicable penchant for goldfinches, whose head had been surrounded by a gilt-edged hula-hoop since his first days as an ugly, precocious boss-eyed toddler.

How different might my interpretation of Jesus have been had I access to an actual photograph of the man Himself? Even just a blurry black and white snapshot. (Obviously, no such thing could never happen, but let’s pretend.) Would such a photograph convey a more or less accurate impression of the essential person of our legendary Jewish carpenter? I know where I stand on this one. Give me the snapshot over some painter’s personal interpretation any day of the week! And I’ll bet I’m not alone. I’ll bet I could flog such a photo of our redeemer for far more than any of the painted masterpieces currently gracing the walls of the Uffizi.

The Baptism of Christ (Verrocchio & Leonardo
The Baptism of Christ (Verrocchio & Leonardo), depicting the essential person of Jesus, ginger hair, halo, airborne hands, radioactive dove, and all.
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This philistine is no doubt making too much of a couple of passing comments made in a book review. My silly Jesus example was chosen to illustrate that artistic interpretations, like all interpretations, are subject to personal beliefs and biases, not to forget clichéd symbolism and dogma. But the claim that a painting can give a truer picture of an individual than a simple photograph is one of a growing trend that I think is bogus, though seldom challenged.

People make similar claims in favour of literary fiction. Novels, it is said, can convey a ‘greater truth’ than factual writing. Or, as Albert Camus is credited with having said (presumably in French), ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good novel, but I’m totally not buying into this one either. Novels, no matter how good, are by definition not true. The novelist is at liberty to—and, indeed, should—exercise artistic licence in a way the factual writer is not allowed. Great. But another way of saying ‘exercise artistic licence’ is ‘write stuff that isn’t true for artistic effect’. Entertaining, no doubt—but hardly telling a greater truth! Call me a literalist, but if you want to read stuff about the real world, isn’t reading quality factual writing the best way to go about it?

Yes, photographers and factual writers have personal biases, misapprehensions, and agendas like everyone else. But let’s not belittle their work by claiming it’s no match for the artistic licence of painters and novelists. Many photographers, and all factual writers worthy of the name, are at least trying to keep things real—occasional embellishments about knees with philosophical sensibilities notwithstanding.

We live in a time in which what counts as truth is often seen as a matter of personal opinion. In which people can pick and choose their facts without being held to account. In which bigots are expected to be cut some slack for holding ‘strongly held beliefs’—as if that were any sort of defence. Claiming paintings are somehow more accurate than photographs, or novels more truthful than factual writing, panders to this misguided mindset. Clearly, there’s a place in this world for paintings and novels, but let’s not overbuild their parts. Instead, would it not be better to acknowledge and celebrate their extra degree of separation from reality?

Book review: ‘Next to Nature’ by Ronald Blythe Wed, 19 Jul 2023 15:20:36 +0100
‘Next to Nature’ by Ronald Blythe

Next to Nature is an anthology of pieces from Ronald Blythe’s long-running (and utterly wonderful) Wormingford series. It was published to mark the veteran country writer’s 100th birthday. Sadly, Blythe died a short while later.

As with all the books in the original series, Next to Nature is a wonderful mix of unpretentious prose with deep knowledge and an ever-present dry humour. The pieces comprise short, thoughtful reflections on country and parish life, the natural world, the changing seasons, literature, scripture, and history. It is pure comfort reading.

Personally, I would recommend you read the whole series, but if that prospect sounds too daunting, this anthology is a fine place to get a taster.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 15 • 1867’ Wed, 19 Jul 2023 15:18:40 +0100
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 15 • 1867

The fifteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1867.

Darwin’s return to relatively good health the previous year continued through 1867. He spent a considerable time during the year correcting proofs of his two-volume The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. In parallel, he also began detailed research into human evolution, sexual selection, and the expression of emotions, which would ultimately result in two more books: The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1867 correspondence include:

  • Darwin complaining in the pages of ‘Athenaeum’ magazine about British publishers’ practice of leaving books’ pages uncut;
  • Darwin’s best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker announcing mid-sentence the breaking news of his wife having just given birth, and Darwin subsequently rejoicing ‘& this not in a parenthesis , that Mrs Hooker is safe through her affair’;
  • Darwin, having been provided with a list of potential human vestigial organs, suggesting a few more, and later reporting incredulously a recent religious explanation of such organs;
  • Darwin’s difficulty explaining gaudy coloration in caterpillars, and Alfred Russel Wallace’s ingenious response;
  • Darwin and Wallace politely disagreeing over the role (or otherwise) of sexual selection in human evolution—and in the different colouring of male and female birds in many species;
  • Darwin’s views on education reform regarding (over-)emphasis on the classics;
  • Darwin claiming “I do not believe any man in England naturally writes so vile a style as I do”, and opining that “A naturalist’s life wd. be a happy one, if he had only to observe & never to write.”
  • Darwin (correctly) predicting his hypothesis concerning heredity, Pangenesis, “will appear bosh to all you sceptics.”
  • Darwin being asked by a German correspondent to rein in his enthusiastic, outspoken disciple Ernst Haeckel, and Darwin doing so (very diplomatically);
  • Darwin’s thoughts on a recent book and an article critical of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection;
  • Darwin receiving an unexpected consignment of locust dung, from which he subsequently manages to germinate some grass-seeds;
  • Darwin receiving (but apparently not replying to) several long, rambling letters from a well-meaning religious fundamentalist (here’s the first);
  • Darwin confidently predicting “I feel no doubt that views closely akin to those which I have advocated will ultimately be universally admitted.”

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Unrecounted’ by W.G. Sebald & Jan Peter Tripp Wed, 19 Jul 2023 15:16:36 +0100
‘Unrecounted’ by W.G. Sebald and Jan Peter Tripp

This book is one for the Sebald completists. It comprises a collection of very short poems by Sebald (translated from the original German by his friend Michael Hamburger) juxtaposed with close-up lithographic images of pairs of eyes by Tripp (also a friend of Sebald).

The poems, as you would expect are enigmatic and Sebaldian. The images border on photorealistic.

If you enjoy Sebald, you’re probably a Sebald completist, in which case you’ll want this book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Cocker, the walk Wed, 19 Jul 2023 12:29:48 +0100 On Sunday morning, several other Hebden Bridge locals and I took part in a short nature walk with naturalist and author Mark Cocker. When I say ‘short’, I mean short in distance: the walk must have been all of 400 metres in total, there and back, from the garden of the Birchcliffe Centre into the adjacent Nutclough Wood. But, as far I’m concerned, the walk’s shortness enhanced its appeal: there is so much to look at and ponder in the natural world, you don’t have to walk far to see wonders galore. (Indeed, I would make the case you don’t have to walk at all: why not simply sit on a convenient rock for a couple of hours and see what comes along? ‘Nature waiting’, I like to call it.)

Not only is Mark a highly knowledgable naturalist, but he also seems to possess the superpower of being able to remember people’s names. He kept everyone in the small group involved, asking them what they could see, and what interpretations they might put on it. He even kept drawing the local Darwin nerd into the conversation… I bluffed my way through as best I could!

We talked about the age of the earth, and of life on it; the ecological benefits of native over imported flora; flowering strategies; bees’ foraging tactics; waggle-dances; inter-species signalling; and seed dispersal—and that was before we had even entered the wood!

Mark Cocker talking flowering strategies
Mark Cocker talking flowering strategies with the aid of some non-native (South African) Crocosmia.

Once beneath the canopy, we talked about honeysuckle nectaries; moth pollination; dutch elm disease; greenflies and wasps; maple syrup; the calls of nuthatches and treecreepers; wrens’ nests; mycorrhizal fungi networks; mosses and liverworts; photosynthesis; the colonisation of the land; avian seed dispersal; and a host of other wonders. I even spotted a lesser-spotted Amy Liptrot stealing through the undergrowth, bushwhacked her, and got to introduce two of my favourite authors to one another.

Mark Cocker et al. in Nutclough Wood.
Naturalists in Nutclough Wood.

I have to say, the walk came at just the right time for me: I’ve recently been thinking I need to include a larger proportion of natural history (in relation to history of science) in my Darwin book. The walk reminded me to concentrate, as Darwin did, on the small things that anyone might observe on their own local patch. You can keep the Serengeti and the Galápagos Islands; Darwin was never happier than when contemplating the grandeur of an entangled bank.

Propellor: Flight // In Conversation Sun, 16 Jul 2023 22:52:57 +0100 The other night, I found myself in the unusual position of being in church even though nobody had died. The occasion was a cross-genre performance of music and words, courtesy of the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival. The show was inspired by bird migration and soundscapes. Three members of the ensemble Propellor performed migration-inspired music, with occasional commentary from the project’s director, Jack McNeill, nature writer Mark Cocker, and sound artist and academic Linda O'Keeffe.

I didn’t know what on earth to expect, and it’s impossible to describe what went on, but I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. The mix of words and music worked wonderfully, there were percussive explosions reminiscent of Tom Waits, the venue was fantastic, and there were several thought-provoking questions from the audience in the Q&A session afterwards. You can get a feel for the sort of thing that went on by listening to the associated podcast.

Flight event

Afterwards, I was also delighted to meet and chat briefly with my (until then) online-only friends Mark Cocker and his wife, Mary, and to bump into Paul Knights (once again). People will start to talk.

In summary: a very ‘Hebden Bridge’ experience.

Philosophising Sat, 15 Jul 2023 17:34:52 +0100 True story: many years ago, a friend’s uncle and aunt, who lived in Hebden Bridge, went on holiday to Blackpool. One of the advertised highlights of their trip was a mystery bus-tour. You’ve guessed it: the mystery destination turned out to be Hebden Bridge. So, rather than take in the familiar local delights, being sensible and frugal Yorkshire folk, they popped home and put the kettle on.

Earlier this week, I took the unusual step of going on a guided walk on my own local patch. It was part of the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival, and our guide was Paul Knights—a chap I knew online, and had corresponded with several times, but had never met before. Paul is a philosopher, and the idea was to walk from the centre of Hebden Bridge up the steep valley side to Wainsgate Chapel, just below my beloved Moor, taking occasional breaks for a bit of philosophising en route.

Stoodley Pike Monument
Stoodley Pike Monument

We were incredibly lucky with the weather, the company was pleasant, there was plenty of food for thought, and I got to learn a new route out of Hebden Bridge.

Philosophising by an air-shaft
Philosophising by an air-shaft

The (literal) high-point of the walk was a visit to one of the water-conduit air-shafts that receive a chapter of their own in my book On the Moor. And, at the end of the walk, as always whenever I visit Wainsgate Chapel, I took the opportunity to visit my future burial plot, to make sure they haven’t planted some interloper there by mistake. (You might think I’m joking, but they have form!)

Keeping sources and ideas separate Thu, 06 Jul 2023 12:01:59 +0100 Yesterday, with a couple of hours to kill waiting in my car, I decided to cross off a longstanding, low-priority task from my Todo list.

A couple of years ago, already deep into researching and writing my latest book, I became a convert to the Zettelkasten note-making system, and enthusiastically adopted the Obsidian app to help me keep track of my notes (other ‘Personal Knowledge Management’ apps are available). Until then, I recorded much of my research for individual chapters of my book in a dedicated Leuchtturm1917 notebook. I’m still using that notebook to brainstorm new chapters, etc; but nowadays my research is captured digitally as ‘source notes’ in Obsidian, one note per source. Having brainstormed my latest chapter on paper, I now construct a more detailed outline in Obsidian, linking the individual bullet points in the outline back to appropriate digital source notes.

My in-car exercise yesterday was to go through the pre-Obsidian section of my paper notebook to see if there were any gems I’d overlooked that hadn’t made it into my digital notes.

This turned out to be a fascinating exercise. As expected, I did indeed find a few nuggets of research that might prove useful in future, so will need to be incorporated into my Obsidian vault. I was also reminded of a number of ideas I’d considered incorporating into (now, first-draft completed) chapters, but hadn’t used. Some of these struck me as still having merit, so I made ‘future revision’ notes in Obsidian to remind me to reconsider them when I get round to my second draft.

But the real fascination in reading through my old notes was to see how I once naively recorded original research within the notes for the individual chapters in which I expected, hopefully, to use it. I was also astonished at just how often it became unclear which bullet points in my notes related to which source—and sometimes even which contributions were someone else’s, and which were mine. How could I ever have worked in that way?

One of the key principles of Zettelkasten is to keep your research separate from any thoughts and ideas (and, ultimately, content) you might eventually derive from it. This means a single source note (about a book or article you’ve read, say) might well end up being referenced in many different notes in your system. Rather than capturing your research within these individual notes, you link back from them to your source notes. This principle applies whether you’re using an digital notes system like Obsidian, or a traditional analogue index-card system.

The many notes in my digital system containing my thoughts, ideas, and chapter outlines all now link back to my separate notes about the sources that inspired them. This means I’m making better use of my source notes, as they’re typically being applied in more than one place. It also means compiling references for my individual chapters has become a relative doddle: I simply consult my outline note for the chapter, from which there are links back to all my original sources.

As I continued to read through my old paper notes, my astonishment at how I used to work grew and grew, until I reached the point at which I adopted my new system, recording this groundbreaking development for posterity in my trusty Leuchtturm1917:

Note from my trusty Leuchtturm1917.

…And then I burst out laughing. A couple of days after recording this momentous decision, I had briefly lapsed, forgetting there was a better way of working these days, and had started trying to record research for my latest chapter the old way, in my notebook. But I’d then realised what I was doing, and had left myself a note that I’d completely forgotten about until yesterday:

Note recording there’s a better way.

Two years later, I stand by that assessment.

Bifurcation of books Mon, 03 Jul 2023 20:57:31 +0100 It had to happen eventually. For several years, many of my books had been residing in storage boxes on a remote galleried landing above our living room. Meanwhile, others had ended up stacked knee- and waist-high on the study floor, the study bookshelves’ having long exceeded capacity.

The study with books stacked inappropriately
Symmetrical book stacking—just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947! No human being would stack books like this!

Something had to give. So we finally bit the bullet and installed a whole wall’s worth of new bookshelves in what is still officially known as the ‘the back bedroom’—although I find I’m already starting to refer to it as ‘the library’.

Unpacking and sorting the boxed books, and dusting, triaging, and re-shelving those in the study took the best part of two weeks. It was surprisingly strenuous and dirty work, but thoroughly worth it. We have our study back! All our books are accessible! There is even, just imagine, spare capacity on our shelves! Oh yes, and we actually have a library! It might not be in quite the same league as the Lit & Phil, but I love it.

Our new library
Our new library shelves

True, my beloved collection of books has bifurcated, now residing in diagonally opposite corners of the house. But, the way I look at it, the exercise will do me good.

Lit & Phil Sat, 01 Jul 2023 19:14:29 +0100 Jen and I have just returned from a few days’ holiday in Newcastle upon Tyne. One of the places we were very much looking forward to visiting was the Lit & Phil, the UK’s largest independent library outside London. It’s a wonderful local resource, which, I was pleased to see, was being made good use of by assorted locals on the morning we visited.

The Lit & Phil’s collection is immense. We wandered around the downstairs rooms and upstairs galleries for an hour reading the spines of books, pulling out and browsing ones that took our fancy. It was remarkable to see so many wonderful old books readily accessible; intended to be made use of, rather than mouldering away in some inaccessible back-room. This is how libraries ought to be, as far as this aging curmudgeon is concerned: books, books everywhere, and scarcely a terminal in sight. A library packed with books: just imagine the possibilities!

I hope the good folk of Newcastle count themselves blessed to have such a magnificent resource available in the middle of their great city.

Officially buzzing Wed, 21 Jun 2023 21:00:16 +0100 I have to admit, I’ve been struggling to make any sort of progress with my Darwin book this year. It’s not entirely my fault: a long-term family illness has been extremely disruptive to my schedule, making any sort of planning or protracted period of work almost impossible. But I also hit a crisis of confidence: I got to the point where I simply couldn’t work out how all my chapters were going to fit together.

Believe it or not, I saw this as an encouraging sign. Exactly the same thing happened when I was writing On the Moor. It meant I’d got to the stage where I’d started thinking of the book as a whole, rather than as a loosely assorted collection of chapters.

One problem in particular made my head spin: there were many strands to Charles Darwin’s life and work, most of them overlapping. This meant, no matter the order in which I arranged my chapters, I would inevitably end up wanting to refer in passing to events or ideas I hadn’t covered yet, but which would be covered in later chapters. This wouldn’t be a problem for readers already familiar with Darwin’s life and work, but would confuse the hell out of other people. Trying to put things into some sort of chronological order simply wouldn’t work for the type of book I have in mind—and, besides, the strands I’m referring to didn’t occur in neat, discrete packages; they tended to run alongside one another, intersecting occasionally.

It took me a ridiculous amount time to resolve my conundrum. The solution I eventually came up with proved ridiculously simple—and, I have to admit, embarrassingly obvious: why not simply include a short timeline at the start of the book to outline the key phases of Darwin’s life and work? I could then happily assume my readers would all have at least a basic familiarity with Darwin, so I would have fewer problems referring in passing to events or ideas I hadn’t covered yet. As I say, an embarrassingly obvious solution. I can’t believe how long it took me to get there!

Anyway, the good news is I’m now officially buzzing! I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking more about the book as a whole, rather than as individual chapters, and I’m starting to feel this thing might actually come together! There are still a few unwritten chapters to work on before I have a completed first draft, but I’m now thinking both at chapter- and book-level, and can’t wait to see how things progress.

Things feel very positive at the moment, which is a vast improvement on how things have felt during the first half of this year.

Let’s go!

Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 14 • 1866’ Tue, 13 Jun 2023 08:56:48 +0100
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 14 • 1866

The fourteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1866.

Thanks, perhaps, to a change of diet and getting more exercise, Darwin, although still far from well, was less ill in 1866 than in the three previous years. He was sufficiently well to revise On the Origin of Species for its fourth edition, and, by the end of the year, finally managed to submit to his publisher the manuscript of The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (minus a final chapter he later dropped). This two-volume work was intended to be the first part of Darwin’s long-planned ‘big book’ on species—although (spoiler alert) he never got round to the other planned volumes.

1866 also saw the deaths of two of Darwin’s sisters, Catherine and Suzanne, after which his childhood home, The Mount in Shrewsbury, was put on the market.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1866 correspondence include:

  • Darwin commending Alfred Russel Wallace for his recent paper on the biogeography of Malaysian butterflies, saying, “Such papers will make many more converts among naturalists than long-winded books such as I shall write if I have strength.”;
  • Darwin rejecting recent new calculations for the age of the earth which indicated our planet was insufficiently old for evolution to have produced its vast current biodiversity. Darwin wrote, “I am bigotted to the last inch, & will not yield. I cannot think how you can attach so much weight to the physicists”;
  • Darwin joking that his (we now know, very wrong) hypothesis of pangenesis is so ‘abominably wildly, horridly speculative’ that it is worthy of the philosopher Herbert Spencer;
  • Darwin explaining that he has always followed his friend the geologist Charles Lyell’s advice and avoided controversy;
  • Darwin providing a potted autobiography to inform a memoir of him in the latest volume of Portraits of Men of Eminence;
  • Darwin co-signing a letter to William Gladstone , Chancellor of the Exchequer, urging for the establishment of a natural history collection independent of the British Museum;
  • Darwin seemingly amused at the audacity of Richard Owen for now effectively claiming natural selection as his own idea—even though he had previously pooh-poohed it;
  • Thomas Henry Huxley subsequently delighting in the ‘unmerciful basting’ Darwin has given ‘Our Mutual friend’ (Owen) is his revised Historical Sketch on the Origin of Species;
  • Alfred Russel Wallace urging Darwin to drop the term natural selection and adopt the term coined by Herbert Spencer, survival of the fittest;
  • Darwin trying to persuade his publisher, John Murray, to have the folded page-edges of the latest edition of On the Origin of Species pre-cut, rather than leaving the cutting to the readers. (See also Murray‘s explanation for why publishers didn’t cut the pages);
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker informing Darwin of a new ‘discovery’ that sunspots are determined by the current position of the planets;
  • Mary Boole asking Darwin about the compatibility of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection with her religious views (and Darwin’s response);
  • Darwin, who struggles reading German, ‘groaning & swearing at each sentence’ in a book by Ernst Haeckel;
  • Darwin’s old shipmate Bartholomew James Sulivan reporting having met Fuegians in Bristol, one of whom was the son of one of the Fuegians who had travelled on HMS Beagle;
  • Darwin subsequently asking for someone to make observations of how Fuegians express emotions.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Knowing What We Know’ by Simon Winchester Tue, 13 Jun 2023 08:43:36 +0100
‘Knowing What We Know‘ by Simon Winchester

I heard about this book via a post on Chris Aldrich’s website and thought it sounded very much like my kind of thing—especially as I had previously enjoyed Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary) and The Map That Changed the World (about the first proper geological map of Great Britain).

Knowing What We Know explores the history of the recording, storage and transmission of human knowledge from the earliest cave paintings to Wikipedia. This is a fascinating and massive topic, covering such subjects as teaching, writing, libraries, printing, books, encyclopaedias, the press, and the Internet.

I have to say, I struggled to get into this book for quite some time, and found myself uncharacteristically irritated throughout much of it. I kept wondering where on earth Winchester was heading. An early lengthy account of a recent, innovative and admirable teaching initiative in Bangalore, for example, seemed like an unhelpful and unnecessary diversion. A dodgy (in the extreme) hypothesis about genetics triggering the (roughly) simultaneous invention of writing in four different parts of the world was enough to make me put the book to one side for a couple of days. I also struggled several times with confusingly worded phrases that made my head spin. How, for example, can the similarities of ancient and modern school topics be ‘surprisingly unremarkable’? Isn’t surprisingly unremarkable an oxymoron? I presume Winchester is trying to say the topics are surprisingly (or remarkably) similar. (This might sound like nit-picking, but there were times I had literally no idea what Winchester was trying to say.)

I did start to enjoy the book more after the first few chapters, being particularly interested by the sections on libraries and encyclopaedias which, it seemed to me, would make excellent topics for popular history books in their own rights.

The final section on wisdom struck me as particularly weak. Wisdom, being the application of knowledge and experience, is a perfectly valid subject on which to conclude a book about knowledge—although, again, it would make an excellent topic for a book in its own right—but Winchester limits his discussion to potted biographies of a handful of apparently randomly chosen polymaths generally admired for their wisdom. (Anyone might think polymaths were the only people capable of exhibiting wisdom!)

As you will have gathered, I was disappointed with this book, having very much looked forward to reading it. I was also frustrated more than once by the absence of references beyond a cursory ‘Books I Consulted’ section—somewhat ironic in a book about the transmission of knowledge. There is certainly plenty of interesting stuff in this book, but I couldn’t help feeling a number of shorter books on the individual topics covered would have been more rewarding.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘A Book Of Days’ by Patti Smith Tue, 13 Jun 2023 08:30:49 +0100
‘A Book of Days’ by Patti Smith

Patti Smith is one of those people you admire simply for being who they are; a person who has never sold out, and who continues to delight simply by continuing to be herself. What you hope and expect from Patti Smith is very much what you get.

A Book of Days is effectively a selection from Patti Smith’s Instagram feed in book format. It comprises 366 photographs to take you through the year one day at a time. Most of the photos are by Smith, although some are borrowed from elsewhere to mark particular anniversaries. Each image is accompanied by brief, often thought-provoking, ruminations by Smith. The photos depict a mix of Smith’s passions, her travels, and her personal life. To absorb the images and accompanying text is to be allowed a daily glimpse inside the mind of a dedicated artist.

On 28th August, marking the birthday of German poet and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Smith remarks:

Great works inspire, the rest is up to us.

Well, exactly. Thanks, Ms. Smith, for sharing your inspirations, and for inspiring us in your own unique way.


Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
My makeshift desks Sun, 21 May 2023 16:11:54 +0100 Back in the days when I made extensive use of a laptop computer, I found resting it on my actual lap while I was working on the sofa to be pretty damned uncomfortable, not least because of all the heat it put out. So I took to resting an old wooden chopping board across my knees to act as a table-cum-heat-shield. It worked really well.

When I’d been using this arrangement for a couple of years, I was delighted to come across the following passage in the Reminiscences of his father by Charles Darwin’s son Francis:

After he had read his paper, came his time for writing letters. These, as well as the MS. of his books, were written by him as he sat in a huge horse-hair chair by the fire, his paper supported on a board resting on the arms of the chair.

A pleasing example, I like to think, of great minds thinking alike!

After I replaced my laptop PC with an iPad and keyboard, heat was no longer a problem, but the keyboard wasn’t rigid enough to rest on my lap directly, so I migrated to a smaller, thinner plastic chopping board. Again, this worked—and continues to work—very well.

iPad and index-card notes
Transferring my card-based reading notes into my electronic system. (Note the high-tech notes holder.)

Under this new arrangement, my large wooden chopping board was temporarily retired. Recently, however, I found a new use for it, acting as a makeshift laptop desk while I’m sitting in my reading armchair in my study. I read a lot of physically heavy hardback factual books, routinely making notes about them on index-card bookmarks. Resting the book and cards on the chopping board placed across my knees has made such note-making that much easier. Better still, I’ve also taken to laying an old piece of cloth across the board to provide some extra protection for the book. I wrap the book in the same cloth whenever I take a break from reading. This might sound like an unnecessarily elaborate, possibly ostentatious set-up, but it works an absolute treat.

Laptop desk
My improvised laptop reading and note-making desk. (And, yes, I totally pulled in my stomach for this photo.)

This year, my reading has mostly centred around the Correspondence of Charles Darwin. I have to admit, I get a big kick out of reading and making notes on letters my hero wrote in his study on a board placed across the arms of his chair using a similar board in my own study.

Book review: ‘The Creative Act’ by Rick Rubin Sun, 14 May 2023 17:00:00 +0100
‘The Creative Act’ by Rick Rubin

I was inspired to read this book by Vashik Armenikus’s video Rick Rubin: 5 Mistakes Artists Make (and how to avoid them).

Rick Rubin is a famous American record producer. The Creative Act comprises numerous short chapters expounding on the general subject of creativity. I suspect each chapter began as a separate note somewhere, as each one stands in its own right, making the book an ideal one to dip into occasionally.

As with similar books I’ve read, I found certain sections of The Creative Act extremely relevant to my current areas of concern, and others far less so. This is not in any way intended as a criticism. As I move between projects (and phases of projects), my areas of concern will no doubt change, so a re-reading of this book might well provide further, now-relevant insights.

Most of the advice Rubin offers seems well-considered and sensible, although occasional hippie-esque sentiments and references to spirituality jarred with this particular reader. I found myself making copious notes on the sections that interested me, which provided opportunities to reflect on my own creative endeavours.

A useful book. One to re-read in a couple of years’ time, I reckon.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book Review: ‘Aftermath’ by Harald Jähner Sun, 14 May 2023 16:51:01 +0100
‘Aftermath’ by Harald Jähner

How did Germany, an aggressor nation, recover and come to terms with its past following its devastating defeat at the end of the Second World War? These and other subjects are investigated in Harald Jähner fascinating book Aftermath.

At the end of the war, Germany lay devastated, with many of its towns and cities in ruins, much of its population displaced, and with foreign forces from four different nations occupying its territory. In well-researched themed chapters, Jähner explores how ordinary Germans and their new leaders approached these challenges, gradually rebuilding order from chaos.

Jähner examines how rubble was cleared; how displaced people became returnees and refugees, bringing both challenges and opportunities; how ordinary German citizens partied as if it were the end of times; how they struggled to re-build old personal relationships, and how they build new ones; how a black market economy thrived, eventually necessitating currency reform; and how Germans as a whole managed to cope by absolving themselves of any personal guilt for what had happened during the war, and by seeing themselves as victims of the former regime.

An excellent book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 13 • 1865 plus supplement (1822–1864)’ Sun, 14 May 2023 16:50:33 +0100
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 13 • 1865 (plus supplement)

The thirteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1865, plus a supplement of letters from earlier years that came to light after publication of the previous twelve volumes.

As in the two previous years, Darwin suffered much ill-heath during 1865, so progress on the first volume of his planned ‘big book’ on species was delayed for much of the year.

Highlights from Darwin’s 1865 correspondence include:

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book Review: ‘Radical By Nature’ by James T. Costa Sun, 14 May 2023 16:49:25 +0100
‘Radical By Nature’ by James T. Costa

Marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of its subject, James T. Costa has written an entertaining biography of the man who famously arrived at the idea of natural selection independently of Charles Darwin: Alfred Russel Wallace.

Were I ever tempted to cheat on Darwin and direct my fanboy fascination elsewhere, Wallace would definitely be in with a chance. He led a long and fascinating life, fully deserving his place in the scientific pantheon in his own right, rather than being portrayed, as he sometimes is, as some under-appreciated unfortunate who was totally eclipsed by Darwin.

Following on from his excellent book on Darwin’s experiments, Costa does a great job telling the story of Wallace’s life, from his upbringing on the English-Welsh border, to his burgeoning interest in science, his early work as a surveyor with his brother, his befriending of fellow science-enthusiast Henry Walter Bates, and their decision to travel to South America to pursue their interests in exploration and science. It was in South America that Wallace, who eventually parted ways with Bates, first developed an interest in the geographical distribution of species—what we nowadays refer to as biogeography—a subject that was to become synonymous with Wallace’s name. Costa goes on to describe Wallace’s disastrous journey back to England, in which the ship he was travelling caught fire and sank with the loss of Wallace’s notebooks and large collection of valuable specimens.

Surprisingly undaunted, a few years later, Wallace was off naturalising and collecting again, this time in the Malay Archipelago (a problematic term these days, then used to describe the extensive group of islands between the South East Asian mainland and Australia). Here, over several years, assisted by a number of locals, Wallace travelled from island to island, collecting specimens, contracting diseases, and hypothesising in his down-time. It was here that Wallace earned his fame as a biogeographer, when he identified a hypothetical line running between the islands of the archipelago, on one side of which were found species with Asiatic characteristics, and, on the other side, species with a mix of Asiatic and Australian characteristics. This line was soon to become known as the Wallace Line.

Wallace had been convinced of the fact of organic evolution even before he set sail for South America, having read the controversial, anonymously written bestseller Vestiges of Creation (a book Darwin found to be utter rubbish). Costa describes how Wallace planned to theorise about evolution and, in particular, to address the arguments made against evolution in Charles Lyell’s influential book Principles of Geology. The same book had inspired Darwin–with its geology, rather than its arguments against evolution–during the Beagle voyage. Darwin and Lyell had since become close friends.

During his time on the Malay Archipelago, Wallace dispatched occasional scientific papers back to Britain. One of these, what is now known as his Sarawak Law paper (1855), concluded that ‘Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.’ Back in Britain, Darwin was largely unimpressed—as far as he was concerned, the paper contained no new ideas he hadn’t already thought of himself—although he did send Wallace some words of encouragement. But the paper Wallace sent Darwin three years later came as a total bombshell, outlining a theory of evolution pretty much identical to Darwin’s as-yet unpublished theory of evolution by means of natural selection. This led to a rather undignified rush to establish Darwin’s priority by publishing some old papers of Darwin’s alongside Wallace’s. It also caused Darwin to put to one side his long-planned, partially written, never-to-be-completed ‘big book’ on species, and to begin writing an ‘abstract’ that was to become On the Origin of Species. To his credit, Wallace expressed complete satisfaction at how his paper had been published alongside Darwin’s, and always maintained natural selection was Darwin’s theory, not his. Upon Wallace’s return to Britain a few years later, the two men were to become respectful, albeit not particularly close, friends.

I particularly enjoyed Costa’s account of Wallace’s life following his return from the Malay Archipelago. The tales of Wallace’s two great expeditions having been covered in detail, the pace necessarily picks up as there is a lot of ground still to cover over the remaining five decades of Wallace’s long life. Costa describes Wallace’s ongoing friendship with, and influence on, Darwin; his many books and papers; his financial difficulties; his marriage; his many relocations; his awards and honours; his debunking of flat-earthers; his embrace of spiritualism; his advocacy of women’s rights; his anti-vaxism; his campaigning for land-reform; his environmentalism; and his successful late lecture tour of the United States.

I did have a small number of quibbles with this book. In particular, when discussing Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper, Costa adopts the standard narrative that was (in my opinion, compellingly) debunked a few years back by science historian John van Wyhe. I assume Costa must be aware of this paper, but as far as I could see, he makes no attempt to address any of the points it raises. This could be seen as fair enough in what is supposed to be a popular biography, but Costa does, on the other hand, find space to mention—albeit adopting a neutral position—the supposed controversy over the arrival date of Wallace’s bombshell letter at Darwin’s house—a favourite non-topic of conspiracy theorists.

This and a few other irritations aside, I very much enjoyed Radical by Nature, and recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about a justifiably celebrated, fascinating figure from the history of science.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 12 • 1864’ Wed, 26 Apr 2023 10:49:44 +0100
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 12 • 1864

The twelfth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1864.

As in the previous year, Darwin suffered much ill-heath during 1864, so progress on the first volume of his planned ‘big book’ on species was delayed for several more months. Instead, Darwin once again dedicated what energy he could muster to less strenuous botanical studies, all of which sought to support arguments he had presented to the world five years earlier in On the Origin of Species. He continued his investigations into heterostyly and plant hybridisation, but focused in particular on climbing plants. All of these studies investigated how existing plant organs had become modified, producing adaptations that encouraged cross-pollination, or that enabled plants to climb.

Also of note in 1864 was Darwin’s developing friendship with the man who had independently arrived at the idea of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin was particularly impressed with Wallace’s paper The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of “Natural Selection”, which was the first to apply the idea of natural selection to human evolution. Although Darwin had ideas of his own on the subject, and did not agree with everything Wallace had to say, Wallace’s emphasis on the evolution of human morality and intellect provided an interesting new slant that was later to inform Darwin’s The Descent of Man. Indeed, so impressed was Darwin with the paper that he offered to give Wallace his own notes on human evolution, should Wallace decide to write further on the topic. Darwin was also impressed with Wallace’s modesty at not taking any credit for the theory of natural selection: ‘it is just as much yours as mine’, he admonished Wallace. ‘I shall always maintain it to be actually yours & your’s only’, replied Wallace by return of post.

1864 was also the year in which Darwin was finally awarded the Royal Society’s most prestigious honour, the Copley Medal, having pointedly been passed over for the same award the previous year. But the honour sparked controversy with Darwin’s supporters when it emerged that his evolutionary work had not been taken into consideration in his selection for the award.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1864 correspondence include:

  • a moving death-bed tribute to Darwin from botanist Francis Boott, conveyed to Darwin by Boot’s widow, Mary;
  • Darwin receiving an apology from Daniel Oliver, Assistant in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for having addressed Darwin as if he were one of his students; and Darwin’s typically modest response that he prefers ‘being treated as what I am[:] quite ignorant of the rudiments of botany’;
  • Darwin trying to find a new placement for gardener/botanist John Scott, who had resigned from his post at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, frustrated at lack of support from his superiors. Darwin ends up paying for Scott’s passage to India;
  • Darwin’s former shipmate aboard HMS Beagle Bartholomew Sulivan informing Darwin of the recent deaths of two other shipmates;
  • the poorly Darwin reporting having being read an astounding number of ‘trashy novels’;
  • Darwin’s and his correspondents’ reactions to the first photograph of him sporting a beard. ‘Do I not look venerable?’ he jokes. His best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, compares the bearded Darwin to a painting of Moses in the House of Lords;
  • Darwin explaining the origin and development of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection to a new German disciple, Ernst Haeckel;
  • Darwin receiving (and apparently wisely ignoring) a ridiculously long, rambling letter from a religious fundamentalist who, while admitting he has not actually read On the Origin of Species, feels duty bound to point out the error of Darwin’s ways by quoting biblical chapter and verse, and by using different-coloured inks and occasional capital letters. (I share your pain, Mr D: believe me, I’ve been there!)

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 11 • 1863’ Mon, 10 Apr 2023 17:08:49 +0100
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 11 • 1863

The eleventh volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1863.

During the second half of 1863, Darwin suffered from prolonged ill-health, which affected the work he was supposed to be doing on the first part of his long-planned, never-to-be-completed three-volume magnum opus on evolution. Instead, he continued to pursue his recent botanical studies, sometimes from his sick-bed. Featuring prominently in the year’s correspondence are Darwin’s thoughts, observations, and queries concerning plant cross-pollination, including his interest in dichogamy (the ripening of the stamens and pistils of a flower at different times), heterostyly (in which different individuals of the same species of flower exhibit different relative lengths of stamens and styles), and orchids’ reproductive adaptations. Darwin’s botanical interests expanded further as he became fascinated with certain plants’ abilities to move and climb, and in phyllotaxy (the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem)—a topic that ultimately left him flummoxed.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1863 correspondence include:

  • excitement and controversy over the recently discovered fossil Archaeopteryx, an early bird bearing decidedly reptilian features and, as Darwin had once predicted, bifurcated wings;
  • Darwin’s growing indignation with his former friend, now enemy, Richard Owen;
  • Darwin’s deep disappointment at the ‘excessive caution’ exercised by his close friend and ally Charles Lyell in his long-anticipated book The Antiquity of Man;
  • the ensuing public scientific spat about Lyell having insufficiently acknowledged the work of others in his book;
  • Darwin’s delight at his friend Thomas Henry Huxley’s far more forthright book on a related topic, Man’s Place in Nature;
  • Darwin’s regret at having used biblical-sounding terms in On the Origin of Species;
  • Darwin’s public defence of On the Origin of Species, in the pages of ‘Athenæum’—a move he was soon to regret, and never to repeat;
  • ongoing discussions with Darwin’s closest friend in the United States, Asa Gray, concerning the civil war;
  • a campaign spearheaded by Darwin’s wife, Emma, against steel vermin traps;
  • Emma and Charles Darwin’s dismay at the apparent destruction of their daughter’s grave in Malvern (it was found eventually—Emma had been looking in the wrong place);
  • an unsuccessful campaign by his friends to have Darwin awarded the Royal Society’s highest honour, the Copley Medal (not to worry—spoiler alert—he was to receive it the following year).

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.