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Posts tagged ‘Non-Fiction’

Best books read in 2012

Rather than provide the usual list of best books published in 2012, we thought we’d take an alternative approach to this at Dontreadtoofast.com – below are the best books we’ve read in 2012.  We hope you enjoy them as much as we did.   See you all again in 2013.  The Editors.

For Whom the Bell TollsErnest Hemingway

The first and only book I have read that made me feel more alive when reading than when not.  I thought I had run the full gamut of human emotions through literature but never have I felt the urgency of mortality more forcefully than when reading Hemingway’s masterpiece.  If you did not read this book in 2012 or before, make sure you read it in 2013.  The Editors

A Dance to the Music of Time – Anthony Powell

It is not one book, and I did not read all of it this year. However, the 12 component parts of Anthony Powell’s epic form a coherent whole, and I did get through the majority of it in 2012, some of it in far flung bits of West African bush. It takes a while to warm up (about five volumes indeed), and I would not be the first to say that reaches its peak with the three war time instalments (The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art and The Military Philosophers). But fundamentally the Dance repays the time one must invest to master it.  Simon Akam

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

I am somewhat reluctant to push this book into the 2012 limelight; it is by no means a seminal work. However, for those fed up with a wet and cold London, slip through the cracks into Gaiman’s fantasy world “London Below” – a subterrenean labyrinth of disused tube stations, sewers and canals. Magical characters like Old Bailey and the Angel of Islington will lead you through this shadowy world where walking down Night’s Bridge (Knightsbridge) might be the last thing you do. It’s magical escapism at it’s best, you’ll never forget to “Mind the Gap” commuting into work again.  Anna Stewart

War Music – Christopher Logue

I have two best books read in 2012, but the first, Infinite Jest, is one of those novels with which you feel that it isn’t passing through your life, but you through its, so I make my genuflection and move on to Christopher Logue’s War Music. It’s a translation and adaption of the central part of the Iliad – from Achilles’ decision not to fight for the Greeks after Agamemnon’s confiscation of Briseis through to his re-entry into the war after the death of Patroclus. The language has all the hard-edged clarity, the sweep and ferocity we associate with the Greeks. Never have I read the Trojan War so vicious, Achilles so startling, Hector so noble, the gods so cruel and indifferent.  Alex Starritt

East of Eden – John Steinbeck

It is a very brave author that sits down to write a novel so plainly about ‘good and evil’. To do this without preaching or patronising is almost impossible and the cynic in me began this novel with not a little scepticism, but I was left in awe. Steinbeck uses the story of Cain and Abel to examine the relationships between brothers, and also of their individual relationships with their fathers through three generations of the same family. I fell in love with some characters, grew to hate others and learned a lot along the way. I suggest you buy a copy because you can’t have mine – Merry Christmas DRTF and friends.  Al Kent-Lemon

The Letters of Sylvia Beach – Edited by Keri Walsh

A charming collection of the correspondence of this most significant and quiet woman who, among many other things: fostered a generation of writers in Paris through her bookshop-cum-library including Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce; she published Ulysses when no one else would take it; and perhaps most importantly of all, she gave this website it’s name.  The Editors

2666 – Roberto Bolaño.  This book was long, difficult and bewitching. I fell in love with it long before it was finished.

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer.  In his stunning debut, JFR enters the territory of A Clockwork Orange mixed with The White Tiger, in a delightful violation of the English language – he make it is his own.

Becoming Dickens – Robert Douglas-Fairhurst.  An excellent counter-historical account of Charles Dickens’ life, his almost accidental rise to fame and the bison-like determination that pushed him on to achievement.

The Consolation of PhilosophyBoethius. I read this book at least once a year and it is always in the list of the best books I have read that year.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life – Adam Phillips.  This combines literary criticism with psychoanalysis in a way that spans an incredibly broad, if incomplete, number of subjects.

Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature Alastair Fowler.  Semantic clues in literary naming. A marvel.

Noriko Smiling – Adam Mars-Jones.  A wonderful study of post-war Japanese cinema.

The Deadman’s Pedal – Alan Warner.  He writes with the kind of dark Scottish humour that Irvine Welch should aspire to, with characters so amazingly eccentric I am never sure if I would run away screaming or take them home for cheese on toast were I to encounter them in a dark alley.

The Big Music– Kirsty Gunn.  Inspired by bagpipes. Essential.

NW– Zadie Smith.  Some say not as strong as White Teeth, this is accomplished and entertaining regardless.

Boxer Beetle and The Teleportation Accident – Ned Beauman.  Hilarious, wonderfully plotted and hugely accomplished, both.

Bring up The Bodies – Hilary Mantel.  No way this can be left out.

The Twelve – Justin Cronin.  This is hard to admit to. This is a post-apocalypse novel with vampires in it. For adults. It is the second part of the Passage trilogy, it is over 590 pages long and I read it in three days. Utterly compelling.

Angelmaker– Nick Harkaway. Harkaway’s is a funny, tautly written example of how a thriller (or mystery, for the classic definition) novel should be written.

Ancient Light – John Banville.  Unpromising subject beautifully written.

Graphic Novels

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes – Mary and Bryan Talbot.  This illustrates how fraught growing up in James Joyce’s household was for a child of this cantankerous, frustrated man. The entrance of a young Samuel Beckett does nothing to simplify things. Moving and brilliant.

Complete Works of Alison Bechdel.  Everything you never need to know about being a young illustrator/artist/writer and/or a lesbian. Self-deprecating to the last, amazingly honest and funny.

Poetry

81 Austerities – Sam Rivere.  He’s young, he writes about the distortion of things, he’s ace.

Collected Poems– Don Patterson.  Whether he writes about the death of a dog, the birth of a child or spending too much time with his mates in the pub, Patterson is capable of bringing you up short with his apt mastery of the correct word in ever situation, always with humour.

Gangster’s Paradise

Beauty and the Inferno – Roberto Saviano

Roberto Saviano rose to prominence after writing Gomorrah in 2006, a brutal exposé of the Neopolitan mafia that was subsequently turned into a prize-winning film in 2008.  As a result of the book, Saviano was black-listed by numerous factions of the Camorra, a criminal organisation based in Naples, to the extent that the Italian Minister of the Interior granted him a permanent police escort in 2006.  Despite this clear government recognition of the danger Saviano faces on a daily basis, Silvio Berlusconi, among others, has made it a habit of labelling him unpatriotic for his criticism of the criminality lying at the heart of several major sectors of the Italian economy.  It is, as a result, a powerful combination of injustice and isolation that drives Saviano’s collection of essays, all written since he effectively became a recluse, an ironic prisoner of his own writing:

“I work like an inmate.”

Unsurprisingly, given Saviano’s area of expertise, a lot of the book deals with organised crime in the south of Italy, particularly in relation to the construction and waste disposal industries.  However, perhaps because he feels that he is constantly fighting a losing battle against forces that seem to be beyond the reach of the law or any sort of morality, Saviano’s essays are littered with stories of individuals who have shared a similar position of vulnerability yet still managed to keep fighting.  Lionel Messi’s battle against dwarfism, for instance, is the subject of one chapter entitled “Playing it all”, as is Joe Pistone, the man behind the character of Donnie Brasco.  At various stages in the book, Saviano talks about his friendship with Salman Rushdie and their shared experiences of living under police protection.

“Writing is a form of resisting; writing is resisting.”

I would argue that the most important effect of Saviano’s writing to date has been to pull back the veil of glamour surrounding the Italian mafia.  Gomorrah was grim both because of the brutal murders and because of the depiction of the squalor of the Naples slums in which the Camorra has thrived.  Simply put, Saviano’s mafia is not the mafia of The Godfather, not the mafia of privilege, wealth and Italian sophistication, a myth created by Hollywood over the years by a gradual desensitising of its audience (these days, wiseguys are just as likely to make appearances in romcoms as they are in thrillers).  Perhaps it is this context that makes Saviano’s particular brand of realism so important.  In an age in which the gangster’s crowning ambition of personal gain seems increasingly to reflect social norms, it is literature like this that becomes indispensable in order to bring people back down to earth, regardless of however much men like Berlusconi would like to carry pretending everything is fine (presumably he is deeply enamoured of Hollywood’s potrayal of the mafia).

There is no doubt that Saviano’s literature is “engaged”, in the tradition of Italy’s letteratura impegnata, and he makes a point of saying so at various points in the book.  Frankly, how can it not be?  In the preface, “The Dangers of Reading”, the author tells us that over the past few years he has written from at least ten different apartments, staying in each for only a few months.  Saviano explains that it is writing that allows him to live like this, giving him a voice in an otherwise silent world.  But readers be warned, it is not a gentle voice, rather one that punches you in the solar plexus and shouts at you while you’re gasping for breath.

Losing my Edge

This is Not the End of the Book – Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière

“The book is like the spoon: once invented, it cannot be bettered.”

Apparently some people have started to toy with the idea that current advances in technology – computers, the internet etc – pose a genuine threat to the future of the book as a means of conveying information.  This existential crisis of the humble book is in fact just one focus of Mr Eco and Mr Carrière’s transcribed conversation about the brave new world lying in wait for literature.  Whilst discussing the possibility of a dystopian future without hard-copy writing, they also take the opportunity to look back at the history of the book, in particular the history of its persecution at the hands of various bigots who have seen in its ability to impart knowledge a serious threat to their own power and legitimacy.  This leads nicely into an exchange about the internet’s ability to keep censorship at bay, a chapter entitled ‘The Internet, or the impossibility of damnatio memoriae’, in which Carrière states bluntly that “for dictators, the future is bleak.  If they are to succeed, they will have to operate in total darkness.”  Eco agrees and points out that the continued publication and distribution Rushdie’s Satanic Verses owes itself at least in part to the irrepressible nature of the modern global communication network.

Clearly technology is not all bad then; Danny Boyle’s tribute to Tim Berners-Lee during the opening ceremony of the Olympics was a touching reminder of the ability of the internet to connect people across cultures and nationalities – something that undeniably fits with London’s sense of plurality and openness, qualities that seem to be in short supply in other places at the moment.

However, there is another side to the ubiquitous electronic platform that is more ambiguous – its use as a sort of proxy for memory.  In other words, as a replacement for any real connection with information: the internet is a great safety blanket for anyone doing research or called on to produce dates and statistics.  Eco and Carrière broach this subject in the chapter ‘Do we need to know the name of very soldier at the battle of Waterloo?’,  a chapter that looks at the problem of how to filter the infinity of information supplied by the world wide web.  Since we know we don’t have to remember much anymore, we don’t, leaving the internet to accumulate a universe of information for us instead. Clearly, as the conversationalists of the book point out, we don’t have to know the name of every soldier at the battle of Waterloo, but it is probably out there on the internet somewhere, and if it’s not it soon will be.  One problem with this is that it demands that we become increasingly selective in the way we deal with online sources – the supply of information is no longer the preserve of a select few publishers, so we have access to anything anyone wants to provide.  Even Wikipedia, the decider of innumerable mindless debates, is open-ended in the sense that the only people to distinguish between what is correct information and what is not are the users of the website themselves (ourselves).  If someone were to put up a fake list of all the soldiers at Waterloo, would anyone bother to challenge it?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this meditation on the value of online information led us, as editors of Dontreadtoofast.com, to a bout of intense self-reflection.  How can readers trust the “information” provided on this website any more than they can any other?  The answer, of course, is that you can’t, but we would like to think that we might be able earn your trust.  And if virtual promises can mean anything, we promise that we have actually read all the books that are reviewed on the site.

The Editors

 

Jerusalem!

Jerusalem, The Biography – Simon Sebag Montefiore

We take some things for granted in this world, the sea, the colour green, that there are men, that there are women, that some countries are Christian, that some are Muslim, that others are Jewish. Perhaps there is no other way to take these things, certainly better than to be constantly amazed (‘look at that grass, isn’t it green, isn’t it weird!’ etc.). Perhaps there is a middle ground to be struck, a happy nexus through which we can appreciate that things, though not exceptional, are very lovely and to be cherished. Too many other words that we might apply to them are too far from correct (at least in relation to their literal meanings) such as ‘wonderful’, ‘magnificent’, ‘extraordinary’, to be applicable across so wide a spectrum of objects as those which are, for example, green. One thing which has, at least in my life, held this pervasive and often neglected place, threadbare through use and taken entirely for granted, is the city of Jerusalem. I cannot say when I first became aware of its existence. I know that my father’s family is from a small town from which you can see the mesh fencing dividing Lebanon from Israel and that for a long time, at least in the lush home counties greenery of my upbringing, to cross the threshold from that town in Lebanon to anywhere in Israel was psychologically and physically impossible not least for being anathema to what I understood were my family’s beliefs (about which I was, incidentally, wrong).

Crossing that threshold, therefore, captured me with a special interest, an illicit pleasure for several years following my discovery of its existence. For some time I had gone to church as a child. My parents even dallied with Sunday school which to my relief was shelved, along with the riding lessons, after one session. I had had religious education at school consistently from the age of three however. I had been in a nativity play and attended carol services. I went to chapel four times a week during term time and took theology at A-level as well as a history module specialising in the Crusades. To say that Jerusalem, in a form other than the hymn, should have played a pivotal role in my understanding of the world, or at least the academic life I lived in adolescence, is an understatement. Somehow it did not. I knew there was a temple. I knew that there was a mountain. I had a feel for the climate. I had no feel for the people. I had no feel for the place. I knew there were olive trees. I knew there were guns and fences. I did not anticipate the raw insecurity that pervades modern Jerusalem. I had not thought I would be searched on the doors of restaurants. I had not thought I would drink in the gardens of a hotel, first bombed by Jewish militants. That is all to say, I did not know what to expect yet I had studied Jerusalem and part of its history or histories relating to it and events surrounding it in one form or another for over half of my education.

Enter Simon Sebag Montefiore (let’s call him ‘SSM’). Jerusalem, The Biography, is one of the most engaging books I have ever read about a city. The choice of biography as a medium in which to tell it is sublime. This is history in the writing, history in the making: history told with a clear, resounding voice. Perhaps one reason that I had not learnt a great deal about Jerusalem (aside from my own lack of application) is that its history is so rich that some days and weeks can barely be encapsulated in a book, let alone a chapter, let alone a paragraph. Yet SSM has mastered the subject. Describing the fall of the Masada Fortress to the Romans in April 73AD following a three year siege, a harrowing tale of literally suicidal bravery, driven on by the premise that “we long ago my generous friends resolved never to be servants to the Romans nor to any other than God Himself” after which, SSM notes coolly: “each man killed his wife and children; ten men were chosen by lot to slay the rest until all 960 were dead.”  There is a dark and vivid precision to his account of this place, a precision so often lost in the religious, cultural and outright cultish attitudes with which it seems often to be approached.

What SSM demonstrates, aside from a towering control of style and of fact, is that it is not the history that is off-putting, that it is not reading that is off-putting, it is the form, it is the style, it is the presentation that is off-putting. If readers do not wish to read history, it is first the fault of the writer, then the fault of the reader, never the fault of the history. Why we do not have more histories in the bestseller lists is a simple question to answer, we do not have enough historians whom people wish to read. The qualities of Jerusalem, The Biography transcend literary or narrative skill, transcend the writer’s command of the facts, the quality of Jerusalem, the biography that impels the reader to read it is its sheer life affirming exuberance seconded only by the calamitous importance of Jerusalem to the world, the Middle East and in my case to me. Those are the qualities for which we should search as readers, support as readers, commend to others as readers and aspire as writers. The difficulty of achieving what SSM has achieved: the popular, the pervasive, the excellent, combined in one book and read by a great great many readers is so unusual that it is fitting that such rare quality is here applied to a unique place like Jerusalem. The qualities of Jerusalem, the book, much as like Jerusalem, the place, are those of transcendence, of survival. To survive excess. To survive treachery. To transcend religious, political and cultural divides. To be part of the fabric. To be threadbare, beautiful, unnoticed. In short, that is, to endure.

The Editors

Money money money

 What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets – Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel is the closest you can come to being a rock star philosopher: in 2007, over a thousand students enrolled on his political philosophy course at Harvard University, and BBC Four recently ran a three-part series with him called The Public Philosopher.  Over the years he has developed a reputation for himself in the US as one of the few public voices that anyone takes seriously to challenge the prevailing theories of economic liberalism and market rule.  What stands out in his writing is not, however, his opposition to extreme materialism as such but rather the original way in which he dissects political and philosophical theory.

His first book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do?, was published in 2009 and is essentially just a book version of his university course of the same name.  In it, he asks questions like ‘is it morally preferable to divert a train so that it kills one person rather than five, than to push a fat person off a bridge into the path of an oncoming train to save five people?’  In another chapter, discussing the banking crisis, he refers to the fact that many CEOs in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse distanced themselves from their companies’ decision-making.  Whilst acknowledging that this may indeed have been the case at many large financial institutions, he then asks whether the same CEOs should therefore have been entitled to take all the credit (and related bonuses) during the boom times.

It is this way of turning common issues of ethics and morality on their head that is so distinctive about What Money Can’t Buy.  For example, Sandel takes the hackneyed proposition that advertising and commercialism are corrupting influences and asks: what do we lose from advertising; what does it mean to corrupt?  By doing so, he brings the debate on commercialism back within the realm of logic and reason.  I say this because it strikes me that this particular debate has long languished outside the boundaries of these two fundamental virtues.  Many people have a visceral, aesthetic opposition to commercialism and materialism that may not be unjustified, but without the support of well-reasoned arguments it is simply no good for use in civic discussion.  I remember reading an interview with a protester outside St Paul’s earlier this year in which the protester stated that although he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to change about the current system of government, he had a right to say “no”.  That is undoubtedly true, but if civil unrest is to mean anything substantive it must be accompanied by a well thought out view of what is objected to and what needs to change.  A good starting point would be to read Michael Sandel.

The Editors

I am the sky

Perhaps excitement is a function of our proximity to death. Too near to it is danger, fear, death itself perhaps, but too far from it is boredom, paralysis and ennui. The thought ‘this way life’, ‘that way death’ creates the tension in which life is lived most enjoyably. It is always fleeting. It is always unsustainable. The colours are recalled as having been brighter; the world smaller; the danger strangely reduced by that animal confidence that manifests only as wistful traces of certainty in the gut. These stories are ennervating, exciting to the teller – they speak to the core of what it means to be conscious: which is not to be too conscious – self-conscious – but to combine our best instincts with the effect of our long instruction in how to be alive. Through these stories, recounted experiences, we transcend the process of being human, no longer focused on eating or breathing or sleeping as goals in themselves but merely as the means to existence; to poetry; the keys to life but not life itself.

To Reach The Clouds is an extraordinary document for those reasons. It is not a book. Not really. Its artistic merit is entirely outstripped by the act it describes, albeit with great philosophical verve: an act of desperate purity, of beauty, of brutal physicality: determination, ascension, conquest – coherence. 

In fact, To Reach The Clouds is among the most exciting books I have read in my life. There, poised in the sky of the mind, Philippe Petit stages the most illicit and delicious of artistic crimes: an unsanctioned wirewalk between the top floors of that icon of human endeavour: the Twin Towers. It is a dizzying feat not only because of its demands, its apparent lunacy, its altitude but also because the act itself is the life and death of its actor. The wirewalk between the Twin Towers is Philippe Petit’s life. Everything else is death; the book merely memorial. It need not read “he walked backwards and forwards and then fell from the wire and died” for this to be true. Instead Petit writes: “The wind passes behind me. I allow myself one breath. One pause. I let my face harbor a smile, the way humans do. I nail the cable down. I force him to tremble no longer. I abandon him there and walk away a few steps, supported by the atmosphere agglutinating against the huge wall I’m approaching […] The gods in my friends who are watching from the street […] Each with hands up to support me, to implore my success. Each with hands down to receive me if I fail.” All chillingly recounted in the present.

Petit’s book excites because it says ‘this is death and I hold it at arms length’: “Wirewalker, trust your feet!” The book has balance at its centre: ‘this way life’ and ‘that way death’ for the walker; proximity and distance to danger for the reader. Creative, analytical, wild and concentrated, it bubbles with dreams, drips with effort, ruffles with paper plans and the prosody of achievement. It is a book that is alive with death: approaching and facing death; cheating death; embracing death; being not ashamed of death, of life, its presence, its prospect, its reality. The wirewalker walked and now he is dead. This is a book about man’s war with death and Philippe Petit must be among the most eloquent and insane writers ever to have encapsulated the subject so totally by his experience and recorded it. The book would be an achievement if it did not pale in the comparison with the achievement it describes but more than that, and for the reader who is not a wirewalker, this book is a beautiful little volume up which we can all climb and through which we can hope, if only for a few hours, to live a little closer to the sky.

The Editors

The Prince

Book coverThe Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli, Translated by Peter Constantine

One of my tutees – while I was pushing myself through law school – was a young Russian boy of six called Yasha.  Yasha was fiery and precocious and extraordinarily good at chess and his family named him its King.  One day, I thought, Yasha will be king of more than just a chess board ruling as he did our class room, the household and the playground in which I would beat him at football, being the only thing I could beat him at.

On the chess board he ruled with a ruthlessness I have never since met.  I would think for twenty minutes, he would think for two.  I would take his pawn, he would take my bishop.  I would take his rook, he would take my queen.  And all the time he hummed the Dance of the Knights, chanted “ho ho ho and a bottle of wum”  or giggle as he said, “come on Jamesi, I am going to eat your pieces” as though he was hardly playing at all. His was the most intimidating intelligence I have ever encountered for being both naturally occurring and shaped so sharply like a scythe.

What then of Machiavelli?  In his short and potent treatise on the nature of leadership, the difficulty of decision making, the displeasing underbelly of political success, Machiavelli cuts too closely like a scythe to fit  comfortably in our political discourse:  ‘I judge a prince capable of standing on his own when he has enough men or money to gather an army capable of engaging in battle anyone who comes to attack him; and I judge a prince as needing the assistance of others when he is not strong enough to engage an enemy on the battlefield and is compelled to seek refuge behind his walls, which he then has to defend.”

What Machiavelli represents, aside from a lazy synonym for political chicanery, is the power of thoughtful pragmatism.  We might not like his message (“in short men must be either flattered or eliminated”) but we cannot deny the careful honesty of his ideas which makes them – at least in part – compelling.  It is a deliberately provocative book, it is a polished book, and it is a refreshing book because it runs against the grain of modern utilitarian political discourse, based around the cessation of responsibility by the individual to the state – our constant infantilisation.  It is a book written about 16th Century Italian Princes, yet it reveals to us each how we might choose to live in our own principality and to rule our own affairs (“a wise archer, for instance, will perceive that the distance of the target he intends to hit is too far off, and knowing the extent of his bow”s capacity, will aim quite a bit higher, not so that he will reach that height with his arrow, but so that he will gain his objective by aiming above it”).

It reminds me so vividly of Yasha, not simply because it is intelligent, even if it is cynical, yes, but also because I asked Yasha once why he was so good at chess and he said, “it’s easy James, all you have to do is think.”

The Editors

The world looks different today

Book coverThrough the Language Glass – Guy Deutscher

“Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

So said the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, king of Spain and archduke of Austria, who, as a seasoned polyglot, ought to have known.  However, the idea that language somehow reflects cultural difference is an interesting cliché.  It’s a natural assumption to make that because people speak a different language they must think differently too.  In fact, I’ve always wondered about the extent to which one changes personality when speaking another language: physically, you’re clearly the same person, but at what point exactly does a thought cease to be an abstract thing and crystallise into the rigid confines of a particular language?  Depending on where you stand, this could occur at the very last moment before you open your mouth, in which case language doesn’t really affect the thought itself, or, it could occur at a deeper level of consciousness, in which case the thing you are trying to express may itself be sculpted by the vehicle of its expression.

Deutscher approaches the issue from a strictly scientific perspective.  Not for him the airy generalisations about the musicality of Italian breeding a nation of poets, or the harsh logic of German providing fertile ground for the intellectual rigour of philosophers.  Instead, Deutscher looks at specific examples of linguistic interpretation that can be held up to scrutiny.  He then uses these examples as a platform to assess how language affects the way in which human beings view the world.

One such example is the evolution of how different cultures describe colour.  It turns out, for instance, that Homer was extremely one-dimensional when it came to using colour in his work.  This was seized upon by early linguists as evidence that although our perception of colour may not evolve as such, our need or desire to distinguish between different areas of the colour spectrum does.  Another way of looking at it is this: as a culture becomes more sophisticated it tends to refine its language to allow for a more precise distinction of colour.  As such, early civilisations always had a word for red that was used a lot because red is the colour of blood, but not a word for blue because blue was only really appreciated as a colour in its own right with the invention of colour dyes.  Colours were also lumped together, depending on their usage: the early anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers was astonished to find that on the islands of the Torres Straits, people used the same word to describe the colours black and blue.  An overcooked bit of meat is black, but so is the sky.  Bizarre though this may sound, we still use the word ‘blue’ to describe a huge chunk of the colour spectrum, preceded in some cases by the words ‘light’ or ‘dark’, as though someone realised retrospectively that the two shades were not in fact very similar.

If this makes Deutscher sound like he is only interested in the minute detail of linguistic expression, then I’m doing him a considerable disservice.  In his exploration of language, he seeks to establish concrete instances of how the way we see things is predetermined to an extent by the lens of language.   In doing so, the scope of his observations reaches far beyond differences in colour schematics, and embraces the murky relationship between the biological and cultural evolution of humanity.

The Editors