Twelve(ish) books for twelve months

Just over a year ago, I came up with a project to try to read a book every month that was related to the Age of Sail (vaguely related, at least – apart from Georgian and naval and seafaring topics, if it would have interested Stephen Maturin it was in!).

I didn’t get there, but I had a good time trying.

January: The Honourable Company : A History of the East India Company by John Keay

I had no intention of reading a book about the East India Company until I fell over it in the gift shop of the museum while Christmas shopping, and I had no intention of starting on a book a month project until I got that book, so this was definitely to blame.

It turned out to be very interesting but not at all what I was expecting – to me the Company was a thing with ships a bit like navy ships but not quite, going back and forward from China and India to England, but by that point the book had really lost interest – what it’s full of is the slow steps towards both finding out about the world and trading with it, starting from the early 17th century spice trade. It’s full of fascinating details – a meeting with mermaids, a procession to prove they’re not Dutch, wars with the Dutch and everyone else, the first steps onto Indian soil, and always in these early days the fragility of being alone on the other side of the world. Later it’s the slow story of increasing influence in India, which they never seem to have meant to rule – or at least not to annex for Britain – it’s just that a good merchant takes anything he can get on good terms, and so the land and power they hold keeps growing.

It was a really interesting book, but there was a lot of it – I wouldn’t have got through it all later in the year.

February: The Keys of Egypt : The Race to read the Hieroglyphics by Lesley and Roy Adkins

A reread, but a very topical one – I remembered that it had a lot both about life in Napoleonic France, and about the expedition to Egypt. It’s also a bit like the opposite of a murder mystery – bringing something back to life.

It starts in Egypt, with Napoleon’s army, but also with the scientists they took with them, and with the rediscovery of things completely different from anything they had expected, before going back to Champollion’s birth near the start of the French Revolution and following his life and his studies through ancient languages and ancient history to the recently discovered hieroglyphics, and the way that the events going on around him affected his life. It does well in explaining just how important these things were – the extent to which versions of the Bible were still some of the best sources for ancient history, and the way that the discoveries blew that chronology apart – as well as the unravelling of the mystery itself.

March: The Discovery of France by Graham Robb

I had owned this for years and thought I had never read it, but I think I had, or at least parts of it.

It’s a nice muddle of things – oddities of different parts of France, a chapter I found really interesting about language differences, religion, animals (including bears), the way news and people travelled, the way France was mapped, the spread of tourism and modern transport.

April: The Galapagos by Henry Nicholls

I don’t think I bought this book to be part of the project, but it turned out to be, of course.

A nice change to science, after a definite tendency to history for the first quarter of the year – it does go back to the earliest known visitors, and far earlier, but it’s arranged by theme, not choronologically. So there’s geology, and the way the islands are formed of lines of volcanos, the sea, seabirds, with penguins and flightless cormorants, how plants – and insects – might have reached the islands, landbirds including the famous finches, iguanas and tortoises, and finally the coming of humans, from the sailors who seem to have eaten most of the tortoises to modern tourists. Very interesting for finding out more than the hints about the islands in the Master and Commander film.

May: Napoleon is Dead : Lord Cochrane and the Great Stock Exchange Scandal by Richard Dale

An accident, really – I didn’t know about the book until a friend was selling a copy (and then I didn’t buy hers because it was hardback, bought a copy advertised as paperback, and got a hardback anyway).

And I’m not sure I was much wiser at the end of the book than at the beginning, but I don’t really think that’s the book’s fault – I can get my head round what they were trying to do, more or less, but not why, or how they thought it would succeed (if they did, but really there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of doubt about it, whatever the family may want to think). Still, it was interesting as a historic crime investigation kind of book, and it had quite a bit about Cochrane’s later life, so it’s probably worth reading if you’re interested in him.

June: Lieutenant Hornblower by CS Forrester

I worried a bit about whether this fell within the rules, and then decided that a) they were my rules, and I could make them fit what I wanted to read and b) all the books so far had been modern, and it would definitely tell me more about the Age of Sail, so why not?

And it was funny, and exciting, and even if it wasn’t quite Jack and Stephen, it was good enough that I went straight on to Hornblower and the Hotspur, and if I’m not all that keen on Hornblower himself I fell head over heels for Bush, so it’s all fine. I’m going to miss Bush’s POV all through the rest, though – Hornblower’s head is not nearly such an interesting place to be.

July: Trafalgar : The Nelson Touch by David Howarth

This was the one real started-but-couldn’t-finish failure – July was not a good month for reading, as I was ridiculously busy with dance festival, and I didn’t like the book; I remember saying at the time that I could be fair to a book that criticised Collingwood, but not to one that patronised him. So I’m possibly not being fair to it now, but I don’t get on with the ‘Nelson is always right, so anyone who does differently must be wrong’ strand of naval history. Although I bought this with a modern looking cover it turned out to be from 1969, which probably explains a lot of it!

August: Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel

This was also not supposed to be part of the project, but having started to read it I realised that it perfectly well could be – it reminded me particularly of the scene where Stephen Maturin watches the badger.

It’s a lovely book – basically the story of a year in the life of a field in the far west of England – so far west that most of the names are Welsh – and its inhabitants of all shapes and sizes, with occasional excursions into the wider world and regular excursions into history.

September: Sextant : A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Man Who Mapped the World’s Oceans by David Barrie

Started in September but finished well into October, due to general ineptness.

There seems to have been a common theme of ‘not quite what I was expecting’ in these books – this one was more about voyages of exploration and less about the development of navigation itself than I had thought it would be. It starts off mixing a modern journey across the Atlantic using traditional navigation techniques with the early history of navigation and the way the techniques developed, and then moves onto the voyages made using those techniques – Cook and Bougainville in the Pacific, Vancouver along the coast of North America, Flinders in Australia, The Beagle in the Straits of Magellan, Endurance in Antarctica.
Out of all of them, it left me with a strong desire to read a biography of James Cook, but I don’t know which one to choose!


Should have been Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which I stumbled over in the secondhand book collection at Penrith station in August, didn’t have room in my bag for, and was upset to find gone when I was next there in September. But although I did get hold of it, this was the month I started being a student again, and extra reading just didn’t happen.


Same story – lots of interesting scraps of Georgian history in the studying, but no extras.

December: The Naming of Names : The Search for Order in the World of Plants by Anna Pavord

Spare time again in the Christmas holidays, and another book that has been sitting on my shelves for years – I must have bought this when I did an evening class on Ancient Botany years ago (which I did for much the same reason as I’ve been reading these books.)

So I bought it for Theophrastus, who is the topic of the first section, and who was interested, centuries before anyone else seemed to be, in plants in a scientific sense, rather than a medical one – what plants were, where and how they grew, how they were alike and unlike, not just what they could do for us.

It had some nice links with other bits of my random knowledge – the long sequence of knowledge not exactly being lost but always moving somewhere else – from Greece to Rome to Alexandria to Baghdad and back to Rome and the rest of Europe – which I knew from a book about library history, and William Turner, author of an early English herbal, who I know about purely because he was born in Morpeth – and just generally about plant-based medicine and the origin of the study of botany for its own sake. But once again it finished before I expected it to – I was expecting Linnaeus and other scientists of his time, but he’s only an afterword. So maybe I should read a book about Linnaeus, if there is such a thing.

So I think the final total was 9 and a bit books. I haven’t decided yet whether to try again this year or not – I do have a few suitable things unread, and plenty of things I still want to know about, but I also have no time, at least until the beginning of May…

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