“Veni, Vidi, Vici” by Peter Jones (2014)

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“Romans came up with two stories about how they were founded.”

So far this year, I noted that I’d been pretty low on non-fiction fodder, having worked my way through just three non-fiction books based on the future, economics and poison. Part of this is because I’ve been going through some stuff this year, and my default position is to hide inside fiction, and I’d made myself very comfortable there, escaping into imaginary worlds. However, I decided to step out and headed back in time to learn about the Roman Empire.

Peter Jones provides us with a whistle-stop tour of Ancient Rome, from the mythical Trojan War that started the whole thing in 1150 BC to the empire’s fall in 476 AD. He covers almost every aspect of the time, including politics, religion, entertainment, economy, hygiene, architecture, war, literature, discovery, mythology and diet. Each chapter is divided into bite size chunks of information regarding a particular aspect of the time period.

This is probably where I fell down with this book. It seems to be designed to be dipped into, not read all in one go, as I’ve spent the last week doing. It’s interesting, for sure, and Jones has an engaging writing style, but in places it’s really quite dense, and there are so many names in here, most of them fairly similar, that before long I found I couldn’t keep up with the rotating cast list of emperors, politicians, philosophers and writers. That’s all on me though, and I don’t claim the book to be boring at all. It’s just rather a lot to take in.

I think Ancient Rome for many people means Julius Caesar, public baths, slavery, Pompeii and gladiatorial fights. All of these are discussed in detail here, of course, but there’s also a lot regarding some of the more obscure or nasty emperors, the role of women in society (they had no power and were generally believed to be sex-crazed) and the fact that sexuality was defined entirely different here than it is today. There’s no distinction between “gay” or “straight”, and men had sex with men as a matter of course, just as women slept with other women. Heteronormativity was right out the window with the ancients. It was also great to learn more about Hadrian, whom I know for building a wall and not much else.

Other historical figures also make appearances, emphasising just how long the Romans ruled for. Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ and Attila the Hun all play pivotal roles in the story of Rome, and there’s much to be made of the fact that in 1000 BC, Rome was just a small collection of huts on some hills. It is remarkable that the small town ended up dominating much of the known world at the time, and the ramifications of that dominance are still in evidence today, found in our calendar, language and architecture.

If you want a quick introduction into the world of the Romans, this is the book for you.

“Reasons To Stay Alive” by Matt Haig (2015)

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reasons“Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen.”

Mental illness still carries something of a stigma in our society. Perhaps because the effects are not immediately so obvious than they are with, say, a broken leg or a third degree burn, some people are still inclined to think that they aren’t real. However, depression, anxiety and the whole plethora of mental conditions available to humanity are incredibly real, particularly for those suffering from them.

I’m never going to be so arrogant as to assume I know what it’s like to suffer from a mental illness. I’ve brushed up against something that may have been depression, and if I was to qualify whatever issues I have now, I’d say it’s something akin to anxiety, but I’ve never been formally diagnosed with anything so I’m always wary to use the terms and claim myself to be something I’m not. Nonetheless, much as you don’t need to be a woman to read Animal, you don’t need to have depression to read Reasons to Stay Alive.

Matt Haig is an man who I feel I know better than I do. I’ve only actually read one of his novels so far, The Humans, but adored it beyond measure. I think following him on Twitter does a lot for feeling I know him, and indeed this book does too. His other novels are now on my Amazon wishlist. In this book, Haig talks about his struggle with depression. One day, while he and his then-girlfriend Andrea were living and working in Ibiza, he quite suddenly collapsed into a pit of despair that he was entirely unable to climb out of. The book meanders through his life story as he details his childhood, his depression and his recovery, because recover he does.

Haig knows that depression is not forever, and while maybe it can never go away for good, it can be fought, and it can be controlled. His words are, frankly, beautiful. His writing is so raw and honest, and you can’t but love him and wish him well. You’re so proud of him. And you’re so proud of everyone who has struggled with the Black Dog, who has fought through this storm, and come out the other side a more resilient person. Amongst some very private personal details, Haig also fills us in on the primary symptoms of depression and anxiety, deals with famous people who have suffered from it and shown how it doesn’t have to debilitate you – Buzz Aldrin, Carrie Fisher, Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana and Stephen Fry all suffer or suffered from mental illnesses, to name five, and our culture reveres them all – as well as listing off a general collection of helpful pieces of advice that can make things more bearable.

He also deals with the important issue of being a man with depression. It might not feel like there needs to be a distinction made between men and women on this front, but he points out that while more women are diagnosed with depression, more men commit suicide, which is strongly linked to having depression. Why is this? Although he doesn’t go into it in much detail, it is suggested that this is because society expects men to be tough. “Boys don’t cry” as the old saying goes. Utter rubbish. Toxic masculinity seems to force men to keep their true feelings inside as to show that you’re struggling is to show a weakness, and men must not be weak. Sexism does damage in both directions.

I have little to say about this book that hasn’t already been said by other people. Joanna Lumley called it “a small masterpiece that might even save lives”; the Rev Richard Coles declared it “should be on prescription”. Jo Brand, Stephen Fry, Michael Palin, S J Watson and Simon Mayo all give it great reviews, and I’m inclined to trust and agree with the lot of them. It’s not often a book lives up to the hype, but this one certainly does.

Matt Haig has done something wonderful, and I would encourage everyone to read this and remind themselves that while life might get tough at times – Lord knows mine has been a struggle this week – there are plenty of reasons to stay alive.

“Adventures In Stationery” by James Ward (2014)

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A journey through your pencil case

A journey through your pencil case

“I grew up in Worcester Park, a small town in Surrey.”

There’s a line in David Nicholls’ One Day where the main character, Emma, wonders if her dream of writing is actually just a fetish for stationery. I confess that I’ve wondered the same about myself. I love a good pen, can’t resist a handsome notebook (I’ve got several that feel too good to write in), and have on occasion been to visit a branch of Staples just for something to do, only to find myself suddenly eager to buy in-trays or treasury tags, despite having no purpose for either.

Apparently I’m not the only person with a fondness for stationery, though, and I think there are few people more obsessed than James Ward, author of this book. I bought it last year thinking that a book about stationery sounded quite interesting, but it’s taken me a long time to work up the courage to admit myself nerdy enough to peruse it. As it turns out, and this is no exaggeration, this is one of the most interesting books I have ever read in my life.

Ward traces with undiluted joy the history of our desks from the first inks used in cave paintings right up to Clippy, the world’s most loathed paper clip. Along the way he tells us how products such as staplers, correction fluid, drawing pins, erasers, hole punches, pencils, compasses, date stampers, and ballpoint pens were invented, as well as bringing to life the histories of some of the stationery cupboard’s most famous residents, including Sellotape, Moleskine, Blu-Tack and STABILO BOSS.

This is the book that teaches you that the Americans still use different sized paper to everyone else, informs you about the competition between Marcel Bich and Laszlo Biro, and revels in the discovery of the glue that would revolutionise notetaking with the invention of the Post-It Note. Ward is, without apology, excited by all of these prospects, finding something interesting to say about everything from big, sturdy filing cabinets to the humble pencil sharpener. You’ll find out what inspired the Pritt Stick, why the pens in Argos are so rubbish, and who invented the pocket protector. Along the way there are disasters with leaky pens, glue that won’t stick, and ink that turns invisible when heated up, and a reassuring final chapter which emphasises that stationery is never going to be killed off entirely. Even computers have adapted – after all, think what the icons on computers are for, among others, “Cut”, “Highlight”, “Erase” and “Attach”. Even the “Create a New Post” here on WordPress has a pencil icon attached.

OK, so it isn’t a book to everyone’s tastes, and it’s very niche. When I’ve told people recently what I’ve been reading, I’ve got more funny looks than usual. But this really, genuinely, is an amazingly fascinating read. I could hardly put it down. Ward is amusing, and clearly unashamed of his love for the stationery cupboard, prone to buying products that are long since out of date but nonetheless possess a certain charm for him.

Any writer, artist or hoarder can find something here to amuse them, whether it’s the history of paper, the discussion on the threat that pencils so often seem to pose, a question on if it’s ever OK to take stationery from work, or Ward’s lamentation on the lack of London landmarks suitable for the end of a pen. Whether you ascribe quality to a Parker fountain pen, or prefer the sort that undresses a sexy woman when turned upside down, you will have owned at least one of the items covered in these pages.

Grab a pencil and a Post-It Note, and remind yourself to get hold of this book as soon as possible.

“Think Like A Freak” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2014)

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freak“After writing Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, we started to hear from readers with all sorts of questions.”

Once I’m done in the fiction section of a bookshop (which can take upwards of several hours), I do often go and look in the popular science section. I’ve even taken a shine to popular psychology and popular philosophy once in a while. But popular economics? That was one that really came out of nowhere. I hear “economics” and I think “global banking crisis”, recall that at school it always seemed like the nerdier and harder big brother of Business Studies, and generally want nothing to do with it.

But a few years ago I read Freakonomics and loved it. It changes the way you see the world and gives explanations for things that you’ve never thought about before. It established why most drug dealers still live with their parents, how much your name can affect how well you do in life, and why the legalisation of abortion in the USA made the crime rate drop. With that last one in particular, you may be wondering not only how such a link exists but why the question was even asked. It all just suggests that maybe we’re not getting the answers we want because we’re not asking the right questions.

Think Like A Freak is a guide for people who want to be able to think in this same way and make the right decisions by asking the right things. Levitt and Dubner cover such topics as how to persuade people who don’t want to be persuaded, why quitting isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, why we believe things that are patently untrue, and which incentives work best.

Along the way they talk about Van Halen’s rider and why it famously specified no brown M&Ms in the dressing room, how one man doubled the record for the most hot dogs eaten in twelve minutes, what possessed a man to try and give himself ulcers, how the Chinese ping pong team brokered peace between China and America, what happened when the authors met David Cameron, and why people find it impossible to say “I don’t know”.

It’s a quick read and will give you plenty to think about, but short of quoting from it, there’s little I can say in a review. Granted, Freakonomics is better because there are a lot more stories there and this is more the theory of how it all works, but nonetheless it’s still very interesting and gives you a new way of looking at problems. And if nothing else, you’ll know how to eat hot dogs really quickly by the time you’ve finished it.

“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Elizabethan England” by Ian Mortimer (2012)

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And on your right, the Globe Theatre...

And on your right, the Globe Theatre…

“It is a normal morning in London, on Friday 16 July 1591.”

Why limit your travels to space when you can travel in time? That’s what I always think and it’s an attitude shard by many others, although they tend to be fictional. In 2013, I read and reviewed Ian Mortimer’s travel book, The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England, which as you can infer from the title, is a travel guide for anyone who finds themselves in the 1300s. This time, he’s applying the same idea to the latter half of the 1500s, when Queen Elizabeth I ruled the country, theatre was booming and the British were beginning their quest to conquer the globe.

As before, this book mostly ignores lists of facts and figures (although there are some included) to focus instead on the actual day-to-day life of those living in the sixteenth century. Mortimer explains that this is the best way to bring history to life, and he’s absolutely right. The premise is that you have found yourself in Elizabethan England and this is your guidebook on what to wear, what to eat, what diseases you might catch, how to greet people and how not to get conned by the local criminals.

The book is split into different sections that focus on different aspects of society, such as the landscape, the diet, travel, entertainment and religion. Like all good history books, it isn’t afraid to show you the negative side of things. This indeed may have been a Golden Age in the fields of architecture, drama and exploration, but nonetheless there is still much poverty, social inequality, racism and religious hatred. It emphasises that things are not easy and it isn’t all Shakespeare plays and jaunts down the Thames, but rather that many people are starving because their crops have failed, the death sentence is still very much a real thing, and that the Catholics and Protestants remain at each others throats for much of the reign, leading to trouble for anyone who finds themselves on the wrong side of the fence.

It also dispels many of the myths of the time, such as the belief that no one minded the smells of latrines in the towns, or that bathing wasn’t actually unacceptable or strange, merely difficult to do and time-consuming. The Elizabethans believed that disease could be spread by smell, so did their best to keep themselves clean, and while they did sometimes have to shit in a fireplace, they weren’t necessarily happy about it.

All aspects of the time are included, from what sort of accomodation you could expect from an inn (and at what price), how much the general population knew about the wider world, and what life was like on board ship. We even get to meet some of the greats of the time, such as William Cecil, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and, of course, William Shakespeare himself. Refreshingly, there isn’t a huge amount about him and absolutely no speculation about whether he was the real author of his plays or not. He is presented as himself and the focus is on his plays and sonnets, noting that even in his lifetime, he was accepted as highly talented and very famous.

The chapter on religion is somewhat tedious, but that’s merely because it’s not something that interests me very much, but if you were to find yourself in this era, you’d absolutely need to know about it. These are dangerous times and you can now even be fined for not attending church. Nonetheless, the book is full of incredible facts, including something that has never been mentioned to be in any previous history lesson: a white slave trade was formed during this time that ran for centuries.

If you’re planning a trip to Elizabethan England any time soon, this book is definitely worth taking along with you. And if you aren’t, it’s still a great read. It’s important to remember that the people being discussed herein are not aliens, but your family. For you to be here now, they have to have been there then. That knowledge really brings this book to life, and might make you realise how good we now have it. England under Elizabeth changed everything, and this is a brilliant introduction to the whys and hows that led to us here today.

“All Yesterdays” by John Conway et al (2013)

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All my troubles seemed to far away...

All my troubles seemed so far away…

“What images come to mind when you hear the word ‘dinosaur’?”

Few things are as exciting to discover when you’re a child than the existence of dinosaurs, and nothing is more tragic than the follow up lesson that tells you none of them are around anymore. Children seem naturally drawn to dinosaurs – they have been given the role of actual monsters, the closest things to aliens that we have. And it isn’t just children, because secretly I think that every adult is also still obsessed with them.

This book, therefore, isn’t really a children’s book, but rather a picture book for adults based on modern scientific findings. It’s a short book and contains illustrations and short pieces on the appearance and behaviour of dinosaurs, suggesting that we’ve got it all wrong. It points out that not only will things like colour, behaviour and sound never be fossilised, neither will skin, feathers, cartilage or fur. Who’s to say that the sauropods didn’t have huge flaps of skin around their necks? What if that isn’t a sail on Dimetrodon‘s back, but rather a hump? Did Carnatosaurus‘s tiny arms act as a way to attract a mate? It’s entirely based on speculation, but with a firm grounding in the appearance and behaviour of current species, allowing us to see an alternate history to the one we’re used to.

BUT then halfway through the book things take a turn for the even more bizarre and we are shown reconstructions by future archaeologists of creatures that live in our time. How wrong may they get it? What mistakes will they make? By showing familiar animals in a new light that can only be inferred from the remaining bones, it highlights everything that’s been shown in the book’s first half. The illustrations are all beautiful and in this section we see such animals as the lithe cow (its large fat reserves would never fossilise), the hippopotamus (mistaken as an epex predator, given its teeth), the swan (wings mistaken for spear-like forelimbs) and the python (assumed to have legs, but none have yet been discovered). Even the elephant is displayed here, although lacks a trunk, given that it has no bones and therefore is unlikely to survive, and whales and hummingbirds are both completely twisted and displayed in new ways.

It’s an interesting and engaging book. Although just shy of 100 pages, I could happily sit and devour 1000 pages of this stuff. A very clever, beautiful and thoughtful look at one of the most interesting topics I can think of.

“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

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outliers“Roseto Valfortore lies one hundred miles southeast of Rome in the Apennine foothills of the Italian province of Foggia.”

I first encountered the writings of Malcolm Gladwell early in 2011 when I read The Tipping Point, a book about what causes ideas and trends to go from being small to suddenly taking over the world. I loved his style and while he’s talking about big sociological ideas, it was done in an unencumbering, relaxed style. He’s writing non-fiction, but he’s a good storyteller. I finally decided that I had to read him again, because I love a bit of pop-sci, and that led me to Outliers.

This is the story of what makes people successful, the outliers who did better than the average. As a society, we look at the people who have done so well and talk about how lucky they are, and in an overwhelming number of cases, we (and the people themselves) go on about how they pull themselves up from nothing and did it all by themselves. However, this book turns that on its head and shows that, far from doing it alone, any successful person needs the help of other people. But there’s more to it than that, even. Sometimes being successful is just being in the right place at the right time. There are probably millions more people capable of being huge successes than currently are, but what exactly is it that causes some to fly high and others to crash and burn?

There are numerous topics of conversation going on in this book, as Gladwell studies various people and looks at why they became so successful. He asks why all the best lawyers seem to be Jewish, why the best hockey players in Canada are all born in January, why a Korean airline was having far more crashes than the average, and how come the two most successful software engineers in history – Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – were both born in 1955. There is luck to some of this, of course, but there also seems to be much about taking offered up opportunities. Certainly, he doesn’t argue that these people don’t work hard – he expands on the theory that anyone can be an expert in anything after 10,000 hours of practice – but he notes that there are more factors than just that involved. It is, he explains, often as much about background than it is about personality.

It’s a very engaging read, and quite easy. Above all, however, it’s entertaining and smart. The studies are interesting – Gladwell shows, for example, the exact reason why Asians are better at maths than Westeners – and each one shows a different aspect of what we know as success. As others have also pointed out, it’s also somewhat autobiographical, the last chapter in particular explaining how Gladwell came to be who he is, thanks to the opportunities and background cultures of his parents and grandparents.

This is definitely a book that will make you think, and hopefully make you smile. It might make you wonder how different your own life could have been if a certain something in your past hadn’t happened. Within these pages are documentations of the singular event that caused the Beatles to become megastars, and led to Oppenheimer leading the team that developed the atomic bomb. While you certainly do still have to put the work in, sometimes the only way to be sure of success is to have the right background. And if you don’t believe that, read this and see if it changes your mind.

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