Wren, pulp, fire, algorithms, etc.
Books reviews, guest writing, Dickens links
A miscellany today with an update about summer writing, some micro-reviews of various books I read recently, news on the Book Club, and two interesting links about Charles Dickens.
Over the summer, you will be hearing slightly less from me for a few weeks. Instead, I am lining up some guest posts from writers I enjoy. All of the posts are excellent and I’m excited to bring you some new voices here on The Common Reader. There will be occasional paid subscribers’ posts from me in that time.
If you are a paid subscriber, or currently on a free trial, you can read about:
a close reading of An Arundal Tomb
If you want to learn about those things, subscribe now.
Some recent books
I didn’t finish all of these books, but that’s not necessarily a reflection on them. Not all were recently published. In fiction, I am currently obsessed with the Chrestomanci series. (Obsessed like I walked twenty minutes plus out of my way to buy the next one in the series yesterday when I realised I would finish the one I was reading that evening.)
Building St. Paul’s, James W.P. Campbell
This is at the top of the list because it is superb. Very short and dense with facts about how Wren built St Pauls, including information about all the workers, stone cutters, etc. Utterly fascinating. As good as God’s Architect or Brunelleschi’s Dome which are some of my favourite books about architecture and late bloomers. Good Progress Studies content here. I wish I could write a book like this.
Spillane: King of Pulp Fiction, James L. Traylor and Max Allan Collins
I read the first half of so of this in the library and it’s excellent. Lots of good context, not too long, moves quickly. Good detail on Spillane’s writing process. He got the idea for one book when his toddler picked up a gun…
The King of Content: Sumner Redstone’s Battle for Viacom, CBS, and Everlasting Control of His Media Empire, Keach Hagey
I haven’t watched Succession, but I imagine this is better—the scene with the fire! Considering the Biblical scope of the story, I think the style was a little too journalistic, but this is a seriously underrated book in the sense that it will only appeal to people interested in business, when really this is one of the stories and lives that will come to be seen as symbolic of our times. Froude thou should be living now!
Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion, Nicholas Spencer
Useful as a reference work.
The Greatest Trade Ever, Gregory Zuckerman
Too much of that boring “character description” and pointless detail writing you get in non-fiction which is supposed to be story telling technique. The idea that using novelistic techniques in non-fiction is in anyway new to our times is complete rubbish and I wish it would either stop or get good. No more pointless descriptions of people’s hair or the stuff on their desk! This is a fascinating story and a very good book, but I kept skimming the “storytelling” parts. Narrative techniques are supposed to have a purpose not just to make it feel compelling and “real”. The Sumner Redstone book is better for this.
Hayek: A Life, Bruce Caldwell and Hansjoerg Klausinger
Even as a Hayek admirer, I found this way too long, and it’s only the first volume. But it’s excellent and everything a large biography of an important thinker ought to be. In general, I want more shorter biography, Like Edmonds on Parfit.
They Went to Portugal, Elizabeth Bowen
I’m reviewing this for Prospect so all I will say here is that I am glad to see mid-century women’s non-fiction is being revived. Elizabeth Jenkins, friend of Bowen, was a wonderful biographer and ought to be in print as such. Daunt continues to produce lovely books.
Nothing Stays Put: The Life and Poetry of Amy Clampitt, Willard Spiegelman
Somehow I cannot find my way into enjoying Clampitt’s poetry so I have struggled with this so far, but it has all the hallmarks of a very good book. Clampitt, of course, was a late bloomer. The reviews were good.
Book Club—J.S. Mill
To continue our theme of nineteenth century (auto)biographical writing, our next book after Mrs Gaskell will be John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography. We will meet to discuss this in September. I will provide essays about Mill and his family, autobiography and Bildungsroman, and, of course, about Harriet Taylor. I have a lot to say about Mill—in my view, the existing biographies could all be improved on—so subscribe now if you want the deep dive on one of the most interesting writers of the last two hundred years.
Two Dickens links
I’ll be writing about Bleak House and the role of ideas in the novel for paid subscribers soon…