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. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of My Family and Other Animals

Why did I love 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.

By Gerald Durrell,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked My Family and Other Animals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The inspiration behind ITV's hit family drama, The Durrells.

My Family and Other Animals is Gerald Durrell's hilarious account of five years in his childhood spent living with his family on the island of Corfu. With snakes, scorpions, toads, owls and geckos competing for space with one bookworm brother and another who's gun-mad, as well as an obsessive sister, young Gerald has an awful lot of natural history to observe. This richly detailed, informative and riotously funny memoir of eccentric family life is a twentieth-century classic.

Part of the Macmillan Collector's Library; a series of stunning, clothbound, pocket sized classics…

Book cover of Notes from a Small Island

Why did I love 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. 

By Bill Bryson,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Notes from a Small Island as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1995, before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire to move back to the States for a few years with his family, Bill Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation's public face and private parts (as it were), and to analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about a country that had produced Marmite; a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named…

Untold Stories

By Alan Bennett,

Book cover of Untold Stories

Why did I love 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. 

By Alan Bennett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Untold Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Here, at last, is the astonishing sequel to Alan Bennett's classic Writing Home, in a beautiful hardback edition. Untold Stories contains significant previously unpublished work, including a poignant memoir of his family and of growing up in Leeds, together with his much celebrated diary for the years 1996-2004, and numerous other exceptional essays, reviews and comic pieces. Bennett, as always, is both amusing and poignant, whether he's discussing his modest childhood or his work with figures such as Maggie Smith, Thora Hird and John Gielgud. Since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s Alan Bennett has delighted audiences…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Robert Lacey, Danny Danziger,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Year 1000 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What life was like at the turn of The First Millennium

The Year 1000 is a vivid and surprising portrait of life in England a thousand years ago - no spinach, no sugar, but a world which already knew brain surgeons and property developers, and yes, even the occasional gossip columnist.

Uncovering such wonderfully unexpected details, authors Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger bring this distant world closer than it has ever been before. How did monks communicate if they were not allowed to speak? What punishments could the law impose without stone and iron prisons in which to lock up…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Henry Beston,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Outermost House as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The seventy-fifth anniversary edition of the classic book about Cape Cod, "written with simplicity, sympathy, and beauty" (New York Herald Tribune)

A chronicle of a solitary year spent on a Cape Cod beach, The Outermost House has long been recognized as a classic of American nature writing. Henry Beston had originally planned to spend just two weeks in his seaside home, but was so possessed by the mysterious beauty of his surroundings that he found he "could not go."

Instead, he sat down to try and capture in words the wonders of the magical landscape he found himself in thrall…

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