End of year: a perfect time to treat teachers and pupils to new books

| November 1, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Fiona de Villiers

To celebrate another challenging and busy school year, we’ve rounded up some books that could make excellent ‘gifts’ for the library.

1. Great Speeches – Words That Shaped the World

Edited by Edward Humphreys
Publisher: Arcturus Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-84837-292-4

This book may well inspire you to bundle up those antiquated, well thumbed-through Great Speeches books in the library, dust them off, and donate them to a worthy cause. The modern, good-looking paperback under review here from Arcturus Publishing may look slender, but it packs a mean punch. American President Barack Obama graces the cover, and editor Edward Humphreys has assembled an impressively large and varied cast of characters on the pages within, from Elizabeth I all the way up to Kevin Rudd. In between, readers can experience Sojourner Truth’s goose bump-making “Ain’t I a Woman?’; Tecumseh’s ‘Sell a Country! Why not Sell the Air, the Clouds, and the Great Sea?’; Albert Einstein’s ‘Peace in the Atomic Age’, Trudeau’s “Against Capital Punishment” and Al Gore’s ‘After Hurricane Katrina’, alongside some of the more usual suspects.

It’s common knowledge that ‘speech writer’ is a fairly sought-after 21st century job, which does take a tiny bit of the sheen off the thrill of Obama’s powerful election victory speech (the last in this anthology). But do you think that a committee of 15th century ruff-adorned gents sat around scratching their heads with their quill pens to come up with Elizabeth I’s famous ‘Golden Speech’? I hope not – it’s much more romantic, you’ll agree, to imagine the great sovereign scratching out the immortal words herself. This is just one of the issues teachers can discuss with their students as they select speeches from this anthology to go with a study unit, a principle they may be tackling, or to illustrate the best way to win over an audience to your point of view. Either way, this elegant anthology, with compelling pictures and concise introductions could occupy a key place on the shelf.

2. The Top 10 of Everything

Compiled by Russell Ash
Publisher: Octopus Publishing (for Hamlyn)
ISBN: 978-0-600-61743-3

Up front, the reader is presented with editor Russell Ash standing behind an enormous stack of The Top 10 books. Clearly the man is a pro, and in his introductory note, he says that he “is often asked to sign and dedicate copies of Top 10 to a newborn child as a time capsule of the year in which it was born.

“Not only are the changes mirrored in it over the last 22 years enormous, but I am all too aware of how much they change in a single year,” he observes. What a fascinating job Russell has, and how well he does it. In the 2011 issue of this perennial favourite, he has included features and lists that reveal: The most-played songs, the longest-lived and the richest people of all time, land speed records (including one on ice!); the biggest online retailers and social networks, the most-followed people on Twitter and the top iPhone apps; the latest film, book, music and other award winners; the top singles of every decade since the charts began, the highest earning vampire films and the worst film flops, every building to ever hold the title ‘tallest building in the world’, the tallest bridges and the longest tunnels, the most common first names, the longest place names and the countries with the greatest declining populations; the most common murder weapons, the shortest wars, the first and the worst air crashes, the fattest people and the tallest trees, the deadliest spiders, the heaviest dinosaurs and the worst volcanoes.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything contained in this remarkable book, which seems tailor-made for prize-giving. Ultimately, it’s worth much more than that, though. Spectacularly laid out with fantastic photos, each list, promises Ash, is quantifiable, and sources encompass international organisations, commercial companies and research bodies, specialised publications and a network of experts around the world. A marvellous resource that proves information can still be sourced the old-fashioned way – between the pages of an actual book – and yet it’s bound to offer up facts that teenagers will delight in tweeting to each other.

3. History: The Definitive Visual Guide: From the Dawn of Civilisation to the Present Day

Editorial Consultant: Adam Hart-Davis
Publisher: Dorling Kindersley
ISBN: 978-1-4053-5933-7

4. Explorers: Great Tales of Adventure and Endurance

Author: Alasdair MacLeod
Publisher: Dorling Kindersley in association
with the Royal Geographical Society
ISBN: 978-1-4053-4690-0

5. The Natural History Book: The Ultimate Visual Guide to Everything on Earth

Consultant Editor: David Burnie
Publisher: Dorling Kindersley
ISBN: 978-1-4053-3699-4

It’s always a pleasure to review books from the renowned Dorling Kindersley stable; you’re sure to be considering superior reads supported by thorough glossaries and indexes.

These three – The Natural History Book, Explorers: Great Tales of Adventure and Endurance, and History: The Definitive Visual Guide: From the Dawn of Civilisation to the Present Day are quite simply, masterpieces that leave one simultaneously marvelling at the majesty of planet Earth, and recalling the lines from a modern musical: “And crawling across the planet’s face… some insects called the human race… lost in time, lost in space… and meaning.”

Like its companions, The Natural History Guide would make an impressive door stopper. Like the others too, it’s the result of the efforts of a team of editors, photographers and designers from different parts of the world, in this case London, New York, Melbourne, Munich and Delhi. In particular, the Smithsonian Institution lent an impressive team of researchers to the project.

The flyleaf promises the reader “a unique record of the rich diversity of life on Earth”, and the introduction explains the book’s project to document “the story of our planet, from the unique conditions that sustain life to the evolution and classification of the amazing array of organisms that exist today”. I could not think of anything on the planet that wasn’t covered in this tome, from fossils right through to the Indus River dolphin, in the most breathtaking photographs. But while it’s comforting to note the wealth of species on our planet, it’s a little sad, paging through this magnificent book, to wonder which, given the ominous effects of climate change, will silently disappear from future editions.

The breadth of the coverage in History: The Definitive Visual Guide is equally heart-stopping, beginning with the time marker 4.5 MYA (million years ago) and stopping at the dawn of the 21st century. In between, the history of the world flies by in technicolour. At the back of the book are condensed histories of each continent. This is the sort of book to teach students about the importance of proper research, as well as how to summarise significant events, and indeed, about how treat a beautiful book with great respect. Some readers may find the smaller typeface hard going, but they’re bound to be beguiled by the pictorial supplementary material. Of the three, it’s Explorers (with a foreword by Sir Ranulph Fiennes and an introduction by Michael Palin) that tugged most at my heart strings.

There’s something very moving about those humans who, almost since the dawn of our history, have set out to extract meaning about our existence and to test the boundaries of endurance by undertaking voyages into the unknown. In this epic about mankind in all his fallibility, you’ll find all the names we already know, but also those that have hitherto been ignored by history, including some redoubtable women who set off into parts unknown armed only with a compass and great determination. A fitting end is a discussion on the last horizons left to 21st century man – and woman – beneath the ocean surface, beyond the reaches of deep space, and towards the molten centre of the planet itself.

Category: Book Reviews, Summer 2011

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