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What I’ve been reading this month


A lot of my friends have been strongly recommending Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, and this month I found out why. It was the extraordinary, deeply moving memoir of a neurosurgeon dying of lung cancer as he reached the end of his specialty training. The similarities between Kalanithi’s life and my own made this hit close to home, and I shared many of his reflections on life and death. The writing was brilliant. This was an unforgettable book which I will certainly read again. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I read Charles Glass’s Syria Burning in a day. It was an astonishing account of recent events in Syria set in some historical and political context. As the foreword said, “The war in Syria has long needed a good book to explain what and why it is happening. Few events in recent history have been subjected to so much inadequate reporting” – and this book set that right. I’m sure that the relative brevity meant that some of the political nuance was lost, but for a newcomer to the wider picture (like me), it was well pitched. It’s hard to have any reaction other than “what a tragic mess”. The statistic that will stick long in my mind was that 92% of Syria’s ambulances were no longer functional – it’s a weird measure in a way, but it gave a picture of the extraordinary scale of loss in a country that was once the region’s medical leader. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I’ve never been able to get along with history books, but reviews of Mary Beard’s SPQR have been so positive that I thought I’d give it a go. It was brilliantly lightly written, underpinned by a clear wealth of knowledge, and explained eloquently how conclusions about many aspects of Roman life have been reached from archaeological findings and surviving written accounts. I found the many discussions of bias in historical accounts interesting, both in terms of the sources of bias and ways in which historians can work out where the truth lies. The Prologue and Epilogue also made some especially powerful points about the place of history in modern society. But despite all of that, I struggled to finish this book. There was a bit in the Prologue where Beard said that “history is what you ask of it”; all too often, the question appears to have been “Can you give a chronological list of Roman Consuls and Emperors?” I just couldn’t bring myself to care. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Roy Porter’s Blood & Guts may also have been unduly affected by my general dislike of history books: while there were some interesting historical stories and some great pictures, the haphazard arrangement into topics meant that it lacked any overarching narrative. Combined with its brevity, it came across as a bit like a bullet pointed list of interesting things, which made for a less than riveting read. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Now I come to think of it, Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now was also a history book, and one that I actually enjoyed. Johnson took six innovations and followed them through human history, demonstrating their wide-reaching effects. The six innovations Johnson chose (“Glass,” “Cold,” “Sound,” “Clean,” “Time” and “Light.”) are probably arguable, as the subsequent developments clearly require other innovations along the way, but he spun such a convincing and engaging narrative that this seemed forgivable. In the manner of many popular science books, Johnson had a slight tendency toward using unnecessary jargon, referring repeatedly to “long zoom history” and “the adjacent possible” as though to reveal some profound insight. Nonetheless, this was a light, enjoyable and engaging bit of thematic scientific and social history. (Amazon | Goodreads)

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