The best books by descriptive popularists with a sense of place and humour

Who am I?

I’m a storyteller. I studied graphic design, animation, and film and became the title designer of Yorkshire Television’s game show 3*2*1 and directed an art-directed film and animation for British television and cinema. I was the Project Designer of the original Jorvik Viking Centre (1984). By 2008 I designed and built 25 award-winning cultural heritage centres and completed 150 international consultancies, producing and directing my exhibition documentaries. I learned how important writing was to my work. When it came down to it, whatever technique I used in the telling, there was always the story behind it as the way to transport the audience into a mentally immersive experience.

I wrote...

On My Way to Jorvik: a humorous memoir of how a boy with a vision became a radical designer

By John Sunderland,

Book cover of On My Way to Jorvik: a humorous memoir of how a boy with a vision became a radical designer

What is my book about?

Why can’t museums be more like films?' thought 11-year-old John Sunderland. He was a truant in a West Yorkshire grammar school, a maths failure, a great respecter of art and history and loved films. He created the iconic British TV cartoon character Dusty Bin and made films with the zany comedian Kenny Everett. He was the perfect person to solve the quandary of the British archeologists who wanted to bring the 10th-century finds of Viking York to life for the public. 

You’ll romp chortling through this uproarious, incredible behind-the-scenes account of the creation of the original Jorvik Viking Centre that changed the way Britain’s cultural heritage would be presented from then on, told with the unremitting Yorkshire wit of its Project Designer, John Sunderland. 

The books I picked & why

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My Family and Other Animals

By Gerald Durrell,

Book cover of My Family and Other Animals

Why this book?

I’m a popularist. My passion is communicating and sharing information on a level that engages, entertains, and informs. Gerald Durrell does just that wrapped up with ribbons of humour and compassionate observation. With effortless ease, you are there in his company, his armadillos or relatives. His characters come to life, including his own young self, as alive as the elder teller of the tale. You feel you know them. He has the same compassion and empathy for the natural world and immediate location as he does for the zoo of his family gathered round the table at feeding time. Of course, the other thing is, he wasn’t just a writer. To have been able to achieve all the amazing things in his life, my goodness, what an inspiration.

Notes from a Small Island

By Bill Bryson,

Book cover of Notes from a Small Island

Why this book?

Bryson is just a brilliant writer who makes you feel as though you’re with him in intimate conversation in his head. His powers of observation in small things, which may seem familiar but are extraordinary, wakes you up to life. This book means a lot to me because of its beginning. He mentions my first big project after designing Jorvik Viking Centre, which was to conceive of and design an exhibition in Dover on the coast of Kent, ‘White Cliffs Experience’. His arrival as a young man and subsequent time spent almost as a down-and-out in that town captured for me the feeling of such a place of transit, of not belonging. He is the most easily evocative writer whose gift is to take you there and smile. 

Untold Stories

By Alan Bennett,

Book cover of Untold Stories

Why this book?

Alan Bennett is another master storyteller and I’m proud to say from my home county and local city where I spent the days of my 20s finding my way. Alan can spin and craft the most engaging stories out of life and common events that pass most of us by. He’s one of my hero writers. I aspire to get anywhere close to his skill, tinctured as he is with his own unique Yorkshire-ness and ironic sense of observational humour. 

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium: An Englishman's World

By Robert Lacey, Danny Danziger,

Book cover of The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium: An Englishman's World

Why this book?

Having made my creative name as project designer responsible for the original Jorvik Viking Centre in York, UK, this book uses words and historical illustrations to do what we attempted to do. It was to place the observer into an experience from the past, which would be in such detail and authenticity that it’s as close, I believe, to time travel as our generation will achieve. Truth, fascination, and amazement. Why I like this book is it achieved what archaeologists, scientists, and interpretive designers strove to achieve. 

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

By Henry Beston,

Book cover of The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

Why this book?

I love Cape Cod and I was fortunate to live on the edge of the sea between 1997-2003. Skillfully written by one of America’s greatest writers of the natural habitat, it transports you to a place. It reminds me of what it felt like to live far out in Cape Cod on the North Atlantic at its furthest reach on the east coast of the United States. Living there for several years and spending time in nature with the sea, beach, dunes, and my bicycle, I learned to love its moods, wildlife, and great sense of mystery. I totally identified with this man’s extraordinary experience and how it was years ago. A wonderfully descriptive book that helps you experience with all your senses what it’s like to live next to the sea alone. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

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