Ah books, that chaos of delight – a reading list

I knew I was finally doing something right the first time I was asked to provide a reading list after a show. I think it was in York. A gothic student strode up to me, apologised, and then asked if I would write out a reading list. Cock-a-hoop, I scribbled down a Feynman, Sagan and possibly a Martin Millar novel, ‘Lux the Poet’ or ‘Dreams of Sex and Stage Diving’ probably. 

As this century has moved on or I’ve moved through it or however time works, if it even exists (you know the way these physicists are), this request request has been made with increasing frequency. I read a lot of books, but I finish few. I am floozy of the paperback, I maul one then, when I reach a sentence that spins me off in another direction, I toss it aside and hungrily grasp another. During Infinite Monkey Cage, I will flail in a slapdash manner through non-fiction that will create a veneer of knowledge of the each recording (yes yes, I know the veneer is flimsy and you’ve heard the plaster crack on many occasions between 4.39 and 4.41pm). Then, I am usually working up a few shows of my own that require some research, plus some bathtime reading that has no grand agenda, but I still read it with a pencil in my hand in case a sentence triggers a quarter arsed idea that just might have the potential of becoming full-arsed at a later date. Whoever receives my books after my death from a paper cut gone septic, will peruse the margins and peruse  the margins and presume I was an avid slaughterer of the lonely, whose drains were blocked by murdered traveler’s friendship bracelets and offal. 

Oddly, though a voracious reader, at the end of each year I barely recall what I have read, even though many of the ideas that have passed through me have been shouted about on stage. My house is books, and so am I. 

So, I will attempt part one of the reading list that led to my Importance of Being Interested show.

1. Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes (also called Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution, and occasionally as a film tie-in for Creation) 

A beautifully written introduction to Charles and Emma Darwin. Filled with enlightening anecdote, heart shattering letters on the death of Annie Darwin, and insight into the mind of the man who changed our understanding of life on earth. 

2. The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin

As often said during the show, do not fear reading Charles Darwin. His writing is beautiful, evocative and enthralling. His conjectures on the development and meaning of expressions is frequently convincing, and when it has been usurped by 20th century investigation, and very often it hasn’t, it is still delightful to observe his “working out”.

Warning: when reading this on public transport, you find yourself scrunching and distorting your face as you read of the many different expressions of emotions and people may believe you have been possessed by Max Wall. 

(I read the edition with Paul Ekman commentary)

3. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin

As above, it is heavy with anecdote and evidence sent from around the world by his vast network of “pen pals”. Fine stories of apes throwing excrement at deserving sailors and the use of wasp and sugar cubes in understanding the animal mind. 

4. The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms with Observation on their Habits by Charles Darwin

My 23 year old self, he had developed enough to be called a self by then, would probably have arched a boozy eyebrow or let out a hiccupy scoff if he had seen his older self browsing this. What an idiot and timewaster he was. Within it you will find the kindest jazz based vivisection and see how an old man had not lost his fascination with the living world. A reminder that the seemingly mundane is worthy of investigation and frequently far more important than you may imagine. Obviously Voyage of the Beagle and On the Origin of Species join the above list. 

5. Almost like a Whale by Steve Jones

It was probably reading this book many years ago that the very first inklings of my 2013 show were dabbed on my brain. Professor Jones writes that Origin of Species as Darwin might have with the evidence accrued over the 20th century. One of the best science writers currently working, every book of his excites. Great armoury for that argument you were planning with an intelligent design proponent too. 

6.  Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

It is a Kurt Vonnegut novel with many musings on a bleak evolutionary vision of the future of man, why wouldn’t you want to read that?

7.  Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott

Sadly, not much of Darwin’s intense Barnacle research made it into the show. (when I quizzed Steve Jones on whether there were any Darwin books I should avoid, he said, “don’t read his books about barnacles, he became overly obsessed”.) Though you might want to skip those two volumes, Rebecca Stott’s exploration of Darwin’s “obsession”, described by some as a diversion from On the Origin of Species and the fears of what such a publication might bring, is an adventure into the mind of a genius and the heart of barnacle. 

Then there was Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (excellent on apes that play draughts), Darwin’s Worms by Adam Phillips, Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish…I’ve barely begun, but I’ve reached my word count for now. Part 2 coming soon. 

My next tour on the mind (another reading list to make) is off to Norwich, Sheffield, London, Salford, Bristol and probably a town near you. Also touring with Josie Long and Grace Petrie in Hull, Leeds, York, Leamington and Lancaster. All dates HERE

 

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4 Responses to Ah books, that chaos of delight – a reading list

  1. johnnysrich says:

    Wonderful list. I’ll go in search of the ones I haven’t read already. And if you liked these, these recommendations made me immediately think of a few other slightly off-the-beaten-track books. You’re just going to love these:
    Steve Jones, In The Blood
    Steven Rose, Lifelines
    Lawrence Wright, Twins
    Daniel Kehlmann, Measuring the World
    And, with all due modesty, my own novel, The Human Script (which explores similar themes).

  2. lanceleuven says:

    “this request request has been made with increasing frequency”

    I can clearly see how the request is increasing in frequency. ;-)

  3. Eek – how am I going to read all that in time for the Chapter show on 5th Feb. I have to admit as a similarly fascinated in science non-scientist (professionally that is) I tend to gravitate towards Brian Greene and John Gribbin as excellent communicators of ideas to the scientific “laity”. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to put physics down for a bit and pick up on biology.

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