Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Great Castles of Britain & Ireland by Lise Hull

I've always been suspicious of people whose reading lives are too orderly and regimented. There are people who claim to read only cozy romances, or military SF, or to be working through the Harvard Classics, and I either don't believe them entirely or pity them for their narrow-mindedness. Books, like any artform, are about all of life, and you can't arbitrarily cut yourself off from life. You have to embrace it, in all its wonder and surprises.

That may seem like an awfully self-aggrandizing way to introduce a book about various piles of worked stone in the British Isles, but it's really about two impulses in the reader. First is the acquisition: you see a book, think it's interesting, hope you might read it one day, and so you keep it. The second impulse is when you finally do read it -- and, for many of us, that impulse doesn't hit nearly as often. (I lost, by a conservative estimate, around a thousand books I hadn't read in my 2011 flood, and I already have at least 500 unread books on my shelves now: even if I stopped acquiring immediately and read intensively, it would take a couple of years just to catch up.)

So the first impulse is the easy one: deciding that this book is one you might like to read, someday, and that you're willing to take the space, effort, and money to get it and keep it. If you're any kind of serious reader, that happens a lot, because the world is interesting and full of things that excite you.

The second impulse is much more specific: a desire to read this book right now. That can strike right after the first, or years later, or never. It can be triggered by a browse through your shelves -- one of the world's great unexamined pleasures -- or a memory of the book, or by an external event. (An award nomination, for example, or a friend who notes she's currently reading that book.)

Now, personally, I've worked in publishing for twenty-plus years, and that's led to one of my pieces of advice: work in an industry that makes things you like, because you'll end up with a lot of them in your house. What you work with tends to stick to your hands, and fill up your life. (This explains why investment bankers have all the money, for example.) These days, I get a lot of books for review, which tend to run in specific categories. But, back in my book-club days, there was a fabled thing called The Giveaway Shelf. It was a bookcase or two, somewhere in whatever office we were inhabiting that year, where editors dumped books they didn't want. And, since the bookclub companies had a lot of operations in a lot of subject areas -- and we paid money to publishers for the books we wanted -- there was a constant flood of books into those offices from far and wide. So we all were dumping pretty regularly, just to keep our offices manageable: there were more books than anyone could read, and almost more than we could keep track of.

So browsing the Giveaway Shelf was always fun: one part an educational exercise in what's being published right at that moment, one part treasure hunt for things of personal interest, and one part continual surprise at projects that actual businesses would put money behind. And, unlike browsing a book store, all of these books were free for the taking -- so I took a lot, for many years.

I think The Great Castles of Britain & Ireland is from that era: I saved a shelf-worth of unread large-format books from the flood, and that shelf is getting read very slowly. (When you read mostly on trains, big books have to fit into the small bits of other reading time.) It was a subject I thought I was interested in -- I'd read a 1926 book, Castles, by the early 20th century military historian Charles Oman, which had a lot of details of warfare and great illustrations. And so I thought this book, written by Lise Hull with great photographs by Stephen Whitehorne, would be in a similar vein.

It isn't, though: this is a more touristy book, aimed at the general public, with thumbnail prose sketches of the history and interesting features of fifty major and historically-important castles in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. It's a lovely coffee-table book, but I find I want the in-depth details more. I want to hear from an expert in something about the deep knowledge of his specialty, not to get a superficial look at fifty places and a few snippets of history about each of them.

That doesn't make this a bad book, and it is definitely more useful to Britons, since it also includes details about when and how these buildings are open to the public. It's a great guide for people who are close enough to actually visit, and Hull expert enough to tell those people what architectural features of the individual castles to look for. But I missed Oman's schematics: I think I'm just the kind of person who prefers a drawing that tells me how something works to a pretty picture that shows me what it looks like.

But this is definitely a swell, attractive book: the pictures are gorgeous, the text covers the big picture for each of these places, and the whole thing looks impressive displayed in your home.

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