As I buy all my books (and indeed pretty much everything else apart from food) from charity shops any review of the books I’m reading is unlikely to be characterised by theme or contemporaneity. However, the combination of being an exceptionally quick reader, a very brisk reviewer and not having much else to do with my time means that I should be able to provide quantity at least.
Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
An intrinsically fascinating subject, but I found it hard work to get through. Partly because Diamond’s thesis – that environmental factors are the primary cause for the differing pace and form of development around the world throughout history rather than being down to innate racial differences – is basically a common sense one (well, at least it’s what I’d assumed working from basic ignorance). Partly because his writing style is rarely inspired and is unnecessarily verbose.
Charlie Brooker – Dawn of the Dumb
In one piece in this book (the second collection of Brooker’s Guardian journalism, particularly his TV column Screen Burn), Charlie offers advice as to what to do if no-one is talking to you at a party. “[S]tart saying the word ‘despair’ out loud. Begin the incantation at conversational level, then increase the volume incrementally until someone asks you to leave.” It kind of sums up what it’s like to read his work in book form.
In single segments, Screen Burn is refreshing, a caustic and witty assault on the banality, idiocy and small-minded cruelty of contemporary culture. His brutal hatchet jobs on those he dislikes (Psychics, Tories, Stupid People, TV Executives Who Are Convinced Their Audience Are Morons) really help raise the morale of people like me who think that these things are evil and must be stopped.
In book form however, it’s a bit like being hit by a sledgehammer of righteousness. And despair. Because Brooker is under no illusions that the enemy are winning, and his articles are no more capable of stopping them than Cnut was of stopping the waves. He approvingly quotes Kurt Vonnegut to the effect that television is contemporary society’s equivalent of the lead pipes that gradually drove the Romans mad – an unlikely view for a TV critic.
There is TV that Brooker likes: Dr Who, Deadwood, The Shield, The Thick of It, Peep Show; but then it’s back to some soul sucking horror like The Jeremy Kyle Show, Love Island, and so on ad nauseam.
Ultimately, Brooker’s journalism stands the test of time surprisingly well given that much of his material is the definition of ephemeral – Big Brother, X Factor, I’m a Celebrity… – but read too much of it at a time at your own peril.
Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything
I think Bill Bryson is a genius, who can make almost any subject diverting. I’ve read, with pleasure, his work on grammar for God’s sake so with the considerable amount of material he has to play with here, an interesting read is basically guaranteed.
The book is basically a twin history, one of the physics, chemistry and biology that has led the Universe from its creation to the present state of the Earth, and one of the progress of human scientists in discovering all these secrets. The first part is clearly explained, generally easy to follow and often fascinating. The second part is where Bryson gets his laughs, poking gentle fun at the many foibles that accompanied the astonishing ingenuity of the leaders of scientific discovery.
Unfortunately, having read all of it, and been fairly sure I understood most of it at the time (I never really got to grips with protons and quarks and so on) I can barely remember a single concept that was explained. In fact, the only clear bit of knowledge that did stick with me is that if a meteor is heading directly for Earth a) we won’t see it in time to fire a nuclear weapon at it, and b) we’re screwed.