Blog : Posts tagged with 'biography'

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Reading list

In which we discuss books and the French Revolution


One thing about yesterday’s post: it gives you a good look at the state of one of our bookshelves. Not a good enough look to make out what most of the books are, though, unless they’re books with distinctive spines that you’re already familiar with – like Peter Ackroyds’s London, for example.

Over on top of that pile on the left, though, is a book I mentioned here a few months ago. Shortly after restarting the regular blogging cycle, I mused aloud as to whether I should restart the Books I Haven’t Read reviews, and predicted one book that might fall victim: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. It’s there on top of the pile, in the blue cover. And, I have to say, so far the prediction’s been right. But not because of the book itself; because there’s been too much else to read. Below it on the pile there’s Graves’ White Goddess, also mentioned as a potential Book I Haven’t Read. I still haven’t read it. Further up, though, there’s a biography of Robert Graves, which I picked up on a bookstall outside the Watershed cinema. I thought: if I’m going to write about The White Goddess, I need to know more about him to do it justice. Coming across the biography by chance, I bought it. I started to read it. I still haven’t finished it.

Elsewhere in the house there are many more books I haven’t finished reading. Amazingly, though, yesterday, I finished one, and it was a book I only made a start on a few weeks ago.* Fatal Purity, a biography of Maximilien “The Incorruptible” Robespierre, by Ruth Scurr. A shy, fastidious man, who I find very intriguing; someone who found himself trying to impose morals by whatever means necessary, because his cause was justified. He was shortsighted both literally and figuratively, and was a logical man who became trapped in his own logic. He was willing to execute his oldest friends, because he thought his cause, the Revolution, was more important.

I’m not sure I read the book properly, because it left me feeling I’d stepped through a lacuna at one point: I wasn’t sure at all how he went from being the people’s leader, to giving a speech that he apparently could see was to try to save his own life. One thing I definitely learned about, though, was Robespierre’s inability to ever, at all, admit that he had been wrong, even after his stance had changed, or when condemning people he had earlier supported. I’m still not entirely sure whether, for that, he should be applauded, or condemned himself.

* Because it was a Christmas present from K’s brother.

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Greetings from sunny Tipton

In which we think about science and scientists


Lounging around on a sunny Sunday morning, I was planning, plotting, and thinking of things to write here. Planning on writing about the cake K was promising to bake, or W’s upcoming birthday, or yesterday’s trip to Oxford with C and P and various other people. And I started thinking: why do I refer to people by letter like that?

I quickly realised where I might have got it from: the scientist and writer Jeremy Bernstein. I have, somewhere on my shelves, a copy of his book Experiencing Science, a compilation of articles he wrote for the New Yorker. It is mostly a series of pocket biographies of prominent scientists, from Kepler through to Oppenheimer via Lysenko, Franklin, and others; but at the end of the book is a slightly strange, partly fictional essay on the work of Turing and Gödel. In which all the main characters – the fictional ones, at any rate – are referred to by their initial letters. K, W, and so on.

I can’t say I fully understand Gödel’s theorems. My maths isn’t that good. I do love its implications, though. It underwrites and undermines the whole of computer theory; and, as someone who works in IT, I know from experience that computer theory hardly ever matters in real life. Someone once asked me, politely, to shut up, on a train, because I was trying to explain Gödel’s theory rather loudly to Δ. I hadn’t realised we were in the Quiet Coach. I try to reread Bernstein’s book every year or two, and not just for the Gödel chapter; clearly, though, it’s been a bigger influence on my own writing than I’d realised before.

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