Book Notes, October to December 2018
Energy by Richard Rhodes — An ambitious and detailed trip through 400 years of human energy production from wood burning through coal, oil, petrol, nuclear and renewable energy sources, looking at innovation and the impact on society and the environment.
There are some great historical notes. I thought I knew well the story of Stephenson’s first passenger railway from here in Manchester to Liverpool, but there is good detail on the ingenuity of floating the tracks over the swamp of Chat Moss and the invested interests Stephenson fought, from canal owners, carriage companies and wealthy landowners. The Earl of Sefton sent secret death threats, letting Stephenson know he’d have him thrown in a lake if he persisted in taking the railway through Sefton’s estates.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson — I read a bunch of Bryson’s travel books in 2015 but put this one off partly because I knew it’d just put in my head the idea of walking the Appalachian Trail and that’s not a small thing to have in your head. It’s about 3,500 km long, it’d take months. Anyway, now I want to walk the Appalachian Trail.
Worth Dying For by Tim Marshall — A world tour of national flags, and some others. There’s a bit of history on each and some interesting facts, like the eight places the Stars and Stripes is authorised to fly 24 hours a day, how Nato HQ rotates its flags every Sunday, and that the night sky shown in the Brazil flag is just as it would have been observed in Rio de Janeiro on 15 November 1889 at the time the monarchy was taken down.
There’s brief mentions of how flags are used to unite and divide, including how the St George’s Cross gets co-opted by the far right in Britain and why the Confederate flag is still flown in the Southern US. But mostly it’s an interesting light read.
Madness Visible by Janine di Giovanni— I made trips to Slovenia and Croatia this year, both beautiful, modern EU states. I picked this up in a bookshop in Dubrovnik: Di Giovanni’s memoir of the Balkan Wars, which she covered on the ground for The Times. It’s a harrowing firsthand account of the devestating reality of murder, torture and ethnic cleansing from Sarajevo, Kosovo, Pristina. Di Giovanni avoids political judgements, focusing on reporting war from the perspective of its victims.
It’s a reminder of the extreme danger faced by war correspondents. Subscribe to a newspaper that pays foreign correspondents or there’ll be nobody there to report on such atrocities.