Reading and Me: Non-fiction
Updated: Jul 2
Looking back, I've published far more non-fiction than fiction. I'm busily trying to redress that balance, but that doesn't mean I regret that part of my life or that I undervalue the place of non-fiction in a reader's life.
Here are a few titles that have also been significant for me. I'll keep the comments brief as many of them are of more specialist interest, but I'm happy to chat about them through the usual channels (Mastodon or Facebook).
Rock-climbing and mountaineering have been an important part of my life and mountaineering in particular has a rich literary tradition. This is one of the finest explorations I know of why we climb. A sensitive blending of scholarship and personal experience.
Bike racing (mostly as a pretty ordinary time-triallist) was only the beginning of my love for all aspects of cycling. It's many years since I raced, but I'm still a fan, and no fan can be unaware of the chequered history of the sport. David Millar's book is the best account I've read of the state of things at the start of this century and what drove young athletes like him, often against their own instincts, into doping. I should add that there's much more to the book than Millar's fall and search for redemption. There's a breadth and depth to it that is often lacking in sporting (auto)biographies, and a real appreciation for the beauty and sometimes savagery of the sport.
Along with mountains and bikes, photography has been the third pole of my working life, and this book was both inspiration and practical guide. I revered Ansel Adams as a photographer but his writings, though fascinating, never quite did as much for me as Rowell's.
Rowell's images were an inspiration, but it was his lucid explanations of how he arrived at a particular result or developed a certain way of working that had the biggest influence on me. When I found myself, years later, teaching photography, and then writing about it, I had a great model to emulate.
This carried over into my walking, climbing, and cycling guidebooks too, and the principle seems more pertinent now than ever. When you can get gpx files for almost any journey you might want to undertake, often at no cost, why fork out for a guidebook? One answer is that professional writers and publishers have a responsibility to offer accurate, safe, and reliable descriptions, and can be held to account if they don't, whereas much of the online content is crowd-sourced and not always dependable. The other is that good guidebooks don't just tell you where to go but back it up with a rich mix of information and inspiration—just what Mountain Light gave me.
Cosmos was both a book and a landmark TV series. I watched the series with my Dad and he loved it as much as I did, so the family bought him a copy of the book that Christmas. I quoted an excerpt from Carl Sagan’s famous lines about the Pale Blue Dot at Dad’s funeral, and I now have that same copy of the book.
As a summary of our understanding of the Universe it’s now out of date in many ways. To give just one example, in 1998 we were still four years away from the first confirmed detection of an exoplanet; over 5000 are now known. But that’s not the point. At the time it was astounding, and if details of astronomy and cosmology have changed, its sense of wonder has not aged at all.
Carl Sagan, like Stephen Hawking, was not just a great scientist but a great humanist. We miss their wisdom; arguably we need it more than ever.
One man and his umbrella walk across Europe… how’s that for an elevator pitch? But that’s the problem with the whole concept of elevator pitches; if you can really encapsulate an entire book in a dozen or so words, it quite possibly isn’t that great a book. Yes, that’s a perfectly accurate capsule description of what happens in Clear Waters Rising, but 'what happens' is not the same as what a book is about. It’s a journey of discovery, and not solely in the geographical sense; it’s a celebration of mountain people and mountain ways of life (some of which were clinging on precariously in 1996 and may by now have vanished or changed beyond recognition); it’s an evocation of wild and glorious landscapes. It’s also beautifully written; along with Le Guin I’d rank some of Crane’s passages as the most gorgeous of any books in this list.
I'm shamelessly name-dropping here, but I have had the great pleasure of meeting Sir David Attenborough, and was one of a small group who had dinner with him after we'd presented him with an award (The Golden Eagle Award of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, of which I was then Secretary). They say you should never meet your heroes, but this was no disappointment; he was as modest and unaffected as you could imagine. And much the same can be said of this book, which tells the story of a truly impressive life in a… well, a modest and unaffected way.
Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes (2022), by Rob Wilkins
I've already mentioned in my list of novels how much Terry Pratchett meant to me. This biography, by the guy who was Pratchett's secretary/PA/general dogsbody—and, later, one of his main carers—gives a vivid account of where all that inventiveness and humaneness came from and how they found expression. The closing chapters, chronicling Terry's struggle with dementia and his untimely death, I found almost unbearably moving. Perhaps this was exacerbated by memories of my own mother's dementia, but I don't think any but the hardest-hearted could be unmoved. But I felt I owed Terry enough to see it through to the end. And fortunately the overwhelming feeling I take away, from both the book and the life, is one of joy and gratitude. Terry Pratchett was one of those people who left the world at least a slightly better place.
I bought this book a few years after publication, when I was an undergraduate newly immersed in bike-racing. The initial attraction was its comprehensive guides to bike setup and maintenance, complete with brilliant exploded diagrams of brake callipers, derailleur mechanisms and so on. By enabling me to do almost all my own maintenance it must have paid for itself many times over. Bikes are more complex now (a mixed blessing) and the book would need to be a lot fatter to cover all the variations of tech, including things like disk brakes, dropper posts, and electronic gearing, that were unheard of in the 70s. Still, it gave me a great foundation to build on.
However, Richard's Bicycle Book was much more than just a workshop manual. It also enlightened me about the social, environmental, and political importance of cycling—all of which should be even more apparent now than they were almost fifty years ago.
My original copy fell apart, not surprisingly for a book that was frequently handled with oily paws and held open with any spare spanner or tyre-lever that was at hand. Like Malafrena, I had to replace it, and kept looking till I found a copy of the original edition. There have been several updates with slightly different titles (insert 'New', '21st-century', etc. after 'Richard's') but it's the original that meant so much to me.
My partner and I were discussing which subjects we might read if we went back to University. I said 'History of Science'. It's not likely to happen, and I'm just a casual amateur, but it's books like this, as well as TV series like Cosmos and The Ascent of Man, that have nourished my interest. There are a number that I could have picked, but Longitude is a great exemplar, one reason being that it brings together time and space. In the days before GPS, knowing where you were was dependent on knowing what the time was; this was the nub of 'the longitude problem'. And it's not just a story of intellectual discovery and magnificent engineering; there's a real human dimension too, as the maverick John Harrison struggles to gain full recognition (and financial reward) from the 18th-century scientific establishment.
I don't think there's any doubt that books like this, and Rachel Hewitt's Map Of A Nation, are a significant part of the background to Three Kinds of North. Even the title is a sort of oblique acknowledgement.
I've read a lot of books about climbing; for many years I worked at Lancaster University Library and this gave me unofficial access to the library of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club. But I bought this one, partly because I was almost acquainted with the author (my brother was at junior school with one of his sons), but mostly because, unlike most climbing books it focused on the kind of climbs I was doing myself: middle-grade routes, with a strong leaning towards the Lake District. (Another more recent book by a mere mortal rock-climber is Time on Rock, by Anna Fleming.)
David Craig was also a fine writer, and for many years taught creative writing, so his accounts of climbs like Eagle Front and North Crag Eliminate are vivid and immediate. Where, as with both of these, he's writing about climbs I've done, his account resonates with my own experience.
I've done a fair bit of writing about climbs myself, both the tersely descriptive style required for guidebooks and more subjective accounts for magazine articles. I've faced the challenge again for passages in Book 2 (and 3) of The Shattered Moon. It's not easy to convey what makes one climb different from another, even when addressing fellow climbers. I'd love to know how well it comes across for readers without any climbing background.
Along with Attenborough, David Craig is the other author on this list whom I've had the pleasure of meeting. A very nice man who turned out to be a fellow admirer of Arthur Ransome.
Though published in 1977, A Time of Gifts recounts a journey that began in 1933. Like Clear Waters Rising, it's a solo walk across Europe, in this case from Hook of Holland to Istanbul, though Leigh Fermor needs three volumes to tell the full story. He was just 18 when he began the journey, and a youthful exuberance still fills the pages even though the book was completed more than forty years later. It's probably too exuberant, or ornate, for some tastes, and I usually prefer a lighter, sparser style, but somehow in these hands I can forgive the prolixity. I wasn't much older when I first read it, and was filled with a timid envy of the boldness of the journey and all that he'd seen. Maybe this, too, has a small place in the genesis of Three Kinds of North.
A Time of Gifts isn't just a counterpart to Clear Waters Rising for me; it also, in a curious way, resonates strongly with Malafrena. Through early chance meetings, Fermor was drawn into the orbit of some of Europe's gentry and minor nobility. If you consider all that was to happen in Europe between 1933 and, say, 1950, it's obvious that the world Fermor saw was about to be ripped apart, and many places would never be the same again. Whether all of these changes are good or bad is a larger subject, but in 1933 much remained from the time in which Malafrena is set, just over a century earlier. This is probably even more apparent in the second book of Leigh Fermor's travels, Between the Woods and the Water (in which for the first time his route also intersects Nicholas Crane's).