As a child I occasionally got sucked into a strange pyramid form of exchanging postcards, an old-fashioned form of chain mail (but not of the metal variety). The details escape me but the basic idea was that you contacted half a dozen of your friends to encourage them to continue the chain and sent a picture postcard to the person whose name had reached the top of the list you yourself received. In time you were expected to receive hundreds of postcards. In practice I never received a single one from the few times my mother was willing to provide the cards and stamps to enable me to participate.
The book cover challenge doing the rounds on Twitter currently has some similarities, except it requires no stamps and is rather more interesting. I was challenged by my physicist friend and colleague, Sheffield’s Richard Jones, to post images of seven book covers of books that meant a lot to me, and to nominate seven other people to do the same, one each day. Richard, himself had been nominated by my Churchill College colleague, economist Diane Coyle. In turn I passed the baton on to seven of my Twitter followers, only one of whom declined.
What made this so painless was the fact you needed to give no justification for your choices, just a photograph of the cover of the book. This meant the book had to be in your possession and many book covers I saw on Twitter were delightfully ‘distressed’ (as antique dealers would have it), well-thumbed and clearly much loved. Even without the necessity of explaining one’s choice, I nevertheless thought hard about what books mattered to me. And what ‘matter’ means in this case is an interesting question. Was it a book I’d loved as a child (quite a lot of the ones I saw chosen elsewhere were children’s books, but I did not opt for that route for any of mine)? Or (A) ones that I read when feeling miserable and wanting a lift or a bit of escapism (several of mine fitted this category)? Or (B) ones that I felt had made a difference to how I thought (a couple were like this)? Or (C) ones that simply were enjoyable in a more serious kind of way (one of those)? With one exception they were books I had read, reread, or dipped into multiple times.
So my choices and reasons were:
Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers – category C. Of all the Sayers’ books, this is far and away my favourite. I have read it over and over trying to work out if women’s Oxbridge Colleges really were as described here, and how accurate the psychological motivations she ascribes to the different characters actually are. I am not convinced that she has not described a very distorted view of female education establishments, but she was writing about a time some 35 years before I entered (the then all-female) Girton College. Or maybe Oxford was distinctly different all along.
The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes – category B. This is my one ‘cheat’ because I have only read this book in its entirety once. I read it at a time when I was consciously trying to read more widely about the history of science, indeed more consciously trying to read more serious books than my previous lightweight diet. It made a big impression on me and encouraged me to think further about the arts-science divisions of the last 150 years and how, at the turn of the nineteenth century, this division was faint if not non-existent. This book fed into the lecture I gave at Newnham College in 21 on Science: Awareness and Ignorance.
Persuasion by Jane Austen – category A. 20 years or more ago, I would have opted for Pride and Prejudice as my favourite Austen novel, but with years of maturity I have switched allegiance to this slightly darker novel; darker but still with a happy ending. In it the heroine’s father is said to be ‘a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour and consolation in a distressed one…’. Well, for me Persuasion is one of my select band of books which gives me consolation in a distressed hour, that I turn to when my world seems to be going sadly awry. It is of its day, though, as is all of Austen, and does not provide a good template for how to live my own life. Nevertheless it is lightly ironically amusing and demonstrates that steadfastness wins the day.
A Voice for Now Anne Dickson – category B. I wanted to choose something under the ‘gender’ heading, since over the years I have expended so much energy (and reading time) on the topic. My initial choice was Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, which I have read several times, but curiously I could not find a copy in the house. Had I always just had it from the library? I’m not sure. The Dickson book is if you like a parable, but I first read it at a time when I felt my gender was making my life difficult, when I felt my powers to make my voice heard within the University were negligible and I liked the idea of doing things differently. Whether it actually had direct consequences for how I acted I don’t know, but it certainly resonated (and still does, even if it may look as if I don’t need it any more).
The New Science of Strong Materials by JE Gordon – category B. I nearly didn’t accept Richard Jones’ challenge because he had chosen this book himself, but he encouraged me to opt for it too. It’s a classic (and was the book cover I posted that got most response over Twitter). I read it as a teenager, probably during my A Level course, and I fell in love with the subject of Materials. As a result I chose, as the ‘investigation’ I had to do as part of the novel Nuffield Physics A Level my school was piloting, the topic of the strength of glass whiskers directly inspired by the book. The experiment, needless to say, did not come up with the canonical results (by which I mean it didn’t work, of course) but that did not put me off. I was less enthusiastic about pursuing Materials Science as an undergraduate at Cambridge, however, as I felt the first year course was rather hand-waving (when it wasn’t about the obscure relationships between planes in monoclinic crystals), but later I still worked for six years in various Materials Departments before ending up finally back in Physics. My mother was very cross with me when I did return to the Physics fold as she had spent 6 years trying to understand – and explain to her friends – what Materials Science was, but with Physics at least her non-scientific friends thought they knew what I was doing.
Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett – category C. This book is the last in a series of six historical novels, set largely in Scotland at the time of the young Mary Queen of Scots. That set of books was my choice on Desert Island Discs – Kirsty Young kindly allowed me to take all six with me – because they are so complex I felt reading and rereading them would keep my mind in trim for however long it took to be rescued. I suspect, despite having read the whole set at least three times, there are many allusions, cross-references, plots and sub-plots that I have still not got to the bottom of, but the books are a ‘ripping good yarn’ even if I am missing 50% of the subtleties.
The Clever Woman of the Family by Charlotte Yonge – category C. Charlotte Yonge is a Victorian author who wrote many improving novels for the young female, heavily steeped in patriarchy and Christianity; she was strongly influenced and guided by John Keble. Not, you might have thought, necessarily the books that might appeal to me. But the very fact that they stand in opposition to the way I live and the things I believe in are, I think, exactly why they appeal. I am trying to understand how I might have had to live 150 years ago. This particular novel is, as the title implies, about a young woman who has more brains than the women who surround her. Despite these brains she gets duped by a con-man and is only saved by the love of a good man. He is a hero from the Indian wars, whose shockingly worldly and highly pregnant sister is polished off by falling over a croquet hoop when trying to escape a former suitor’s attentions, going into premature (and fatal) labour as result; the moral is obvious. The plot seems so fantastic it is funny and I find it a curiously soothing book to read. Much my favourite of the many substantial tomes Yonge wrote.
So there are my confessions about my choices. Other books nearly made the cut. Most notably Mike Hulme’s Why we Disagree about Climate Change which, like the Holmes, really made me think, in this case about the interplay of social science and science. I even got as far as photographing the cover before switching to the (radically different) The Clever Woman of the Family. I was also tempted by Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking which is a wonderful book for dipping into when you want to understand just what is going on in that saucepan at a fairly scientific level. I learned a lot from that book during the years I was formally researching the physics of food.
One point I was well aware of was that of my seven choices five were by women. I don’t think that is necessarily the normal proportion in my reading; I suspect if I looked at a year’s worth of books I probably wouldn’t exceed 50% women authors. However, it is perhaps not surprising my ‘favourites’ – and in particular those in my A and C categories but less so B – are by women. Rebekah Higgit – challenged by Occam’s Typewriter colleague Stephen Curry, who was one of my nominations, also remarked on the preponderance of female authors in her choices.
However, perhaps the fun thing about the Twitter challenge was that you didn’t need to explain any of your logic. Let the tweeps make of the choices what they will.