World History

This week saw the launch of a fabulous programme from the BBC and British Museum, A History of the World in 100 Objects. Every day a new object is ‘released’ in the form of an item on the website and a podcast of just under 15 minutes. There’s also a blog and the introductory post by Neil MacGregor sums up the programme nicely:

Most of us learn history from books, but I think that it is physical objects – actual things – that most powerfully connect us to the past – things made by somebody with hands just like ours, for a purpose we can still hope to understand…
The objects I’ll be talking about in each programme tell us what people were doing, what they were thinking, how they lived and why they did what they did…
Along the way we look at the connections and contacts between societies that show how the story of the world is the story of the whole world.

As well as items from the British Museum’s collections there are items from other museums across the UK and the public are also encouraged to add their own objects to the website as well as commenting on objects. You can search objects by location, theme, culture, size, material and even colour. Today’s object was a carving of two swimming reindeer that is about 13,000 years-old.

Apart from the history angle (and I’ll confess to being a bit of a history geek) this presents a fascinating example of the kind of far-reaching, multi-dimensional, multi-partner project that we’re beginning to see particularly coming out of the UK. There’s just so many aspects to it:

Lost tales

Tales Before Narnia
Tales Before Narnia

I’ve never been a big one for short stories but when perusing the New Titles last month I was struck by this one – Tales Before Narnia – the roots of modern fantasy and science fiction. To be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect but having taken a week off to loaf around home I thought some stories that I could pick up and put down would be a good distraction.

And it was. The tales vary in length immensely but most can be read in a short sitting and were mostly fantasy with a couple of early science fiction stories that could almost be classified as steam-punk now. Many of the stories were first published in the 19th century, one or two even older, and the one that I particularly enjoyed, Undine (1811) had the feeling of almost Arthurian literature. There are tales by Longfellow, Hans Christian Andersen (The Snow Queen), William Morris, Robert Louis Stevenson, Tolkien, Dickens, Kipling and some less well known authors.

Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun
Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun

On reading the introduction I discovered that the editor, Douglas A. Anderson, had previously edited a similar book of Tales Before Tolkien, which the library has a copy of at Akaroa library. But that will have to wait because first I have to read the new Tolkien book The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun. This has just been published and is Tolkien’s version of the Norse sagas of the Volsungs and of the Niflungs, both from the Elder or Poetic Edda. This will be my third version of this story having read it as the Volsung Saga, and also as the 12th century Germanic version The Nibelungenlied – if you want full immersion try Wagner’s Ring Cycle opera, based on the same story.

The new Tolkien version is written as a poem. Translations often lose this element but this is not a translation. These poems, there are two, have never before been published, in fact for a while Tolkien thought he’d lost them. It’s presented with a lot of additional material including the text of a lecture on the Poetic Edda that he gave at Oxford University, a bit of history of the story itself, and commentary.

And if epic heroic poetry interests you let me also recommend Seamus Heaney’s award-winning translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf which we have on CD so you can hear the poet (Heaney) reading his own work.

Golden Notebook project

A couple of weeks ago I joined the books & readers twine on Twine and today it paid off with this wee gem: the Golden Notebook project. This online project combines two of my great loves, really interesting literature and webby goodness. The project is based in the UK and is a collaboration between if:book London and Apt with funding by Arts Council England. Basically seven women are reading Nobel laureate Doris Lessing‘s Golden Notebook, the entire text of which is online so you can read along with them, and they are exchanging their comments / marginalia, online, which you can read. There’s a discussion forum for people to discuss the book and the comments made by the seven ‘readers’ and a blog which the ‘readers’ will be posting on. It only began a couple of days ago so go have a look – there’s a few posts already – and get involved.

What I find quite intriguing is the intersection between all the ‘voices’ involved – Doris herself, her characters, the seven ‘readers’ and all the unofficial online readers. Some of the ‘readers’ comments about the difference between reading in the physical book and reading it online are also interesting if you’re into that sort of thing. This project is really venturing into new territory, and I can’t help but draw parallels with Sword & laser – an online book discussion group where titles are chosen by the two hosts who also do regular podcasts about the books read, but also have online forums.

The project has certainly gotten me interested in re-reading the Golden Notebook as I’m certain that I have read it but actually can’t remember much about it. It is probably Lessing’s most famous novel, partly for its perceived feminist agenda, but my favourites of hers are the Canopus in Argos series. Technically they’re  science fiction, but like the best of the genre its more an exploration of ideas and humanity. I have read Shikasta about once a decade since my teens and always find it a realignment of my thoughts.

A lady in the air

CoverIt can be surprising what catches your eye looking through our weekly Just Ordered list (available as a RSS feed from our website). A couple of months ago I spotted the title Spitfire Women of World War II by Giles Whittell, the brief description told me that it was about the women who ferried military aircraft from the factories in Britain to the bases. Some time ago I had read about American women performing the same task on a website A People At War.

Spitfire Women tells the stories of the remarkable women who came from all over the world to fly a variety of aircraft, often with no more preparation than an hour with a handbook, in all kinds of weather and without any instrument training. They came from a variety of backgrounds, from aristocratic European families to South American farmers – some didn’t even speak English and only two (from Poland) were considered part of the military. While they all started out on the older and slower craft, it was the Spitfire that they all wanted to fly as they felt that its graceful lines and fine controls were designed just for them.

CoverShortly after returning this fascinating book I spotted another, similar looking book, Spitfire: portrait of a legend by Leo McKinstry. This one tells the story of how the Spitfire came to be the fighter plane that every pilot, male and female, wanted to fly. As in the Spitfire women book, the personalities loom large and in many cases seem to threaten the project, and Britain’s defence, from the start. It’s more history than biography, however, and sometimes gets a bit bogged down in the politics, but nevertheless its engaging reading.

Two things have come out of this reading for me – one is a renewed interest in the second world war – and there’s no limit to the reading and watching that the library has available on that topic. The second is a renewed interest in flying and I’ve been on my first training flight at the Christchurch Flying school. Its a great thing to have a go at, and a fabulous gift – if you want to give it a go there are a number of places that you can go to: see our listing of flight schools in CINCH.