Monday 16 December 2013

Another Year in Books

This week, one of my book groups met for our annual Christmas dinner, and for the third year I made Christmas cards for the other members showing the books we have read this year.

I found  The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson a bit tedious (even though it has sold over 3 million copies world-wide, according to Wikipedia), but the book I really didn't like was  A Short History Of England by Simon Jenkins.  It was inevitably superficial, since it attempted to cover so much ground in a single book - not even a particularly long book.  It starts with the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain and ends more or less at the present day (although the last part of the book is of course about the United Kingdom and not just England).  Jenkins writes about important men (hardly any women) and significant events and ignores the rest of the world entirely, except as adversaries or allies of England in war.  It's  history as "just one damn thing after another".  For me, it didn't convey any sense  of what it might have been like to be living at a particular time in history, which is what I find interesting in reading about past times. 

When it was my turn to propose the book that we should read next, I chose Shakespeare's Restless World by Neil MacGregor  as an antidote.  Fortunately, we all enjoyed reading it.  It is full of fascinating detail about life in Shakespeare's time, and beautifully illustrated - the book is structured around surviving objects from that time.  It describes a very different world, when Venice was a world power and the King of Morocco was extremely wealthy,  while England was a not very powerful country on the edge of Europe, under threat of invasion from Spain for much of the period.  London was an unhealthy place to live at the best of times, and there were frequent outbreaks of plague.  There was huge political uncertainty too - public discussion of who would succeed Elizabeth I was forbidden (I didn't know that).   Reading about the concerns of Londoners in Shakespeare's time makes it even more remarkable that his plays are still relevant today.   

I have had to keep all the books that we read during the year so that I could photograph them for the card.  But now the Simon Jenkins book and The Hundred Year Old Man are going to the nearest charity shop.  I enjoyed reading the others and will keep them.

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