The First Traces of Human Civilisation Reading List

Reading list for this year’s non-fiction reading project: a contemporary exploration of the first traces of human civilisation, circa 10,000-5,000 BC.

  1. Meave Leakey with Samira Leakey. The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past. Mariner Books, 2020.
  2. Chris Gosden. Prehistory: A Very Short Introduction. OUP, 2018.
  3. Rens Bod. World of Patterns: A Global History of Knowledge. trans. Leston Buell. John Hopkins University Press, 2022.
  4. Thomas Higham. The World Before Us. Penguin (Viking), 2021.
  5. Louise Humphrey and Chris Stringer. Our Human Story. Natural History Museum, 2018.
  6. Kermit Pattinson. Fossil Men. Harper Collins (Wiliam Morrow), 2021.

If there any titles you’d care to add to my reading list I am open to suggestions of anything published in the last ten years.

Gasping for Air

Echoes of D. H. Lawrence’s Pansies, ‘Darkness submerges the stones’ in the twlight thick underdusk in apprehension of being submerged under one’s books. Peter Kien also appears, cocooned from others by his library. I’ve never been able to finish that novel, equally beguiled and repulsed. A shared thought that arrived during the first lockdown when I began packing up books, some to go to friends, others to my local secondhand bookshop, my library almost halved in volume over the last two and a half years. Not yet old but ageing, and wishing to carry less weight; my mind more likely to weave itself warmly into a cocoon of its own thoughts than require another’s associations.

Reading A Horse at Night, in which Amina Cain writes, “What is it that happens when a narrative allows us to look at an image longer than we are ‘supposed’ to?” Echoes from the evocation of how and why she reads. The network of lines that link two places on the map interest me less than the landscape around the plotline. Voice, images, sense of place, atmosphere. For me these are the echoes long after the memory of the chain is dissolved. The vigorously evoked image of the young lady pricking her finger with a needle is almost all that remains of Byron’s comic cantos. Mariana appears, possibly that shade of blue on the cover of A Horse at Night, or just because this book chimes so well with my sense of autumn, or Keats’, ‘They could not sit at meals but feel how well / It soothed each other to be the other by’. Amina Cain: ‘It means a different kind of peace when he is here with me. It is not pure solitude, but I am not, it turns out, a purist.’

When Paul Theroux visited Borges in his dark Maipú flat, he noted ‘prints by Piranesi and books, a collection of Everyman classics and shelves of poetry in no particular order, all battered and sprouting paper page markers, with “the look of having been read”‘. Borges’ library though was small, his memory carrying what seemed an infinite memory of books.

Sunday Notes

In 100 Days, Gabriel Josipovici, approaching his eightieth year, writes of trying to resist his innate sense of immortality, to be able to approach the inevitability of death with equanimity. It is, I suppose, the only way to contemplate the fact of death, our conspiracy to keep it unconscious a first and necessary line of defence.

Today, prompted by reading Karl One Knausgaard’s The Morning Star, I consulted the tables of life expectancy in England. Unless I get seriously ill or die in an accident I will experience roughly twenty-five more birthdays. Time enough maybe for another couple of thousand books though I do sometimes wonder what I miss when huddled in a fortress of literature. The Morning Star is infuriating and compelling in equal part. It ends with an extraordinary essay that gave me a sense that I should read the whole book again after carefully rereading the essay. I looked up some reviews and learnt that it may have been added as an afterthought and that The Morning Star is the first of a series.

In his novel, Knausgaard refers to a three-volume treatise on death, The Realm of the Dead: A World History, by Olav O. Aukrust. If it exists, it is not translated into English. It is a sufficiently compelling area of study for me to turn to online sources to order Philippe Aries’ The Hour of Our Death, recommended by Daniel, Thomas Laquer’s well-reviewed The Work of the Dead, and successfully look for my unread copy of Robert Pogue Harrison’s Dominion of the Dead (thanks, Steve).

This week I bought Bruce Kirmmse’s new translation of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and his earlier translation of The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, both also prompted by The Morning Star. In London I also picked up a copy of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, Carolyn Forché’s In the Lateness of the World (primarily for the poem Museum of Stones, but there are several others of interest), Peter Handke’s newly translated essay collection: Quiet Places, and a second-hand copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Sunday Notes

This week I returned to Samuel Beckett, to Company, in which he changed his habit of writing firstly in French. I thought I’d read it before, but I am not so sure. Company alludes frequently to earlier work, and it may be that, instead of rereading, I am hearing echoes of The Unnamable, How It Is, and Murphy.

When reading Beckett’s later work, I often think of Lydia Davis’s comment that, “[Beckett and Joyce] evolved to a point where they seemed to . . . write more and more for their own pleasure and interest.” It is, I think, a lazy judgement in Beckett’s case, whose prose is never less than lucid, though it is sometimes difficult, that struggle between (reference T. S. Eliot)  words and their meanings.  If a writer like Beckett is hard it is because the problems he is trying to resolve are difficult. (In the case of Joyce and Finnegans Wake, I’m with Davis, though it must have been amusing to compose).

Both books I finished this week were slim, yet will repay rereading several times. The other, Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion. Her forensic examinations of her narrators’ lives, in this case of a two-year lover affair with a married man, are always compelling. I’m reading them all, at least those available in English translation, chronologically.

I ordered  four books this week from Alma Books, home of what was once Calder Publications. Each book is written by John Calder: The Garden of Eros, Pursuit, The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett, and The Theology of Samuel Beckett. I’m enjoying immersion in the post-war Paris literary scene via The Garden of Eros. I also dipped into Valerie Dodd’s George Eliot: An Intellectual Life, which arrived after a two-month wait.

January: A Start

“The constant, fundamental underlying urge is surely to live more, to live a larger life.”

— Ludwig Hohl, The Notes

It is in the spirit of Montaigne that Ludwig Hohl writes in The Notes. You might call him a philosopher, but, if so, it is in that real sense that one uses philosophy to fashion a way of passing the world through your being. The Notes or On Non-premature Reconciliation will sustain me in the same way as Leopardi’s Zibaldone. Each one of us in our own medium, fearing that we may not be sufficient to our brief lives on the earth, that we might fail to embrace this life with enough joy, enough consciousness, with death closer than the nearest corner. This is Hohls’s project: to recognise the possibility of humanity. This edition is translated by Tess Lewis, razor-sharp imagery and language, reads like it isn’t a translation.

Also in this new year, Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anna Muhlstein. Come not for the bibliophilic fantasy of a weekend spent in Marcel’s well-appointed book-room, but to read Proust through the eyes of someone who knows the text deeply and intricately. Worth the time just to draw attention to the presence of Ruskin in Proust: “I don’t claim to know English. I claim to know Ruskin”.

Reading intentions – 2022

Such that they are. Readers that persist with this blog will detect that though my intentions  are good, my attentiveness to anything resembling a plan is not. There will be Ancient Greek and Roman literature in new translations (Homer, Sappho, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Seneca). I’ll be sampling Katherine Mansfield’s stories, and rereading Dostoevsky. I’d also like to get to Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. Expect me to keep dipping into my favourite authors. The rest, as always, will be serendipitous wild reading.