The best books to stretch your imagination

David Norman Author Of Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction
By David Norman

The Books I Picked & Why

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

By Stephen Jay Gould

Book cover of Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

Why this book?

Steve was one of the greatest science communicators. He writes beautifully and passionately. The breadth and depth of his knowledge and understanding, particularly in matters relating to topics such as Evolution, Life, The History of Science & Ideas was extraordinary; and the way that he could link such serious and esoteric topics with matters in everyday life is engaging and uplifting of the spirit. This story about the pioneering work done by scientists trying to unravel the mystery of the origin and evolution of complex life on this planet interweaves endeavour, chance, and determination, mixed with an overarching insight into deeper philosophical issues about the patterns and processes that may govern Life, are just typical of the man – he may not have been right about everything, but my goodness he makes you think.

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My Family and Other Animals

By Gerald Durrell

Book cover of My Family and Other Animals

Why this book?

Gerry Durrell was a gifted and hugely entertaining writer and, as with all good naturalists (which of course he was – he eventually founded his own Zoo on the Island of Jersey), a keen observer (not only of Nature, but of his fellow human beings). This book is a wonderful evocation of his childhood spent on the Island of Corfu in the 1930s. Leaving cold and rainy Bournemouth (south coast of England – near where I was brought up as a lad) his family upped sticks and headed to Corfu. The sheer joy and excitement of Gerry’s Corfu life, the time it gave him to explore the island and observe the wonderful diversity of animal life, mixed with the truly extraordinary people he met and the antics of his brothers and sister, as well as his long-suffering mother, make you yearn to have been there to soak up such life-affirming experiences.

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The Voyage of the Beagle

By Charles Darwin

Book cover of The Voyage of the Beagle

Why this book?

In 1831 at the age of 22 and freshly minted by his university education, Darwin was offered the chance of a lifetime: to accompany Captain Robert Fitzroy on HMS Beagle for a circumnavigation of the globe. He was in the right place, at the right time, and knew the right people – and although he was only 3rd choice for that position, fate would insist on his being chosen. His experiences on that voyage laid the foundations for his theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection some 28 years later. We are so familiar with the image of Darwin as an old, heavily bearded man with the hangdog expression of one who has all the cares of the world upon his shoulders, that we forget that he had been young, extremely fit, enthused, and equipped with extraordinary skills as an observer (and thinker). This book, written after his return from the four-year voyage captures the essence and excitement of visiting strange lands, unfamiliar inhabitants, and worlds far removed from the rural idyll of Shropshire where he was born and bred. It is an epic adventure story, beautifully written and so evocative of a world that had barely been explored at that time. Reading this book is to share in the excitement of his adventures.

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Walking Through Spring

By Graham Hoyland

Book cover of Walking Through Spring

Why this book?

On the face of it this is just another book about walking in the countryside: so what? Well, it is far more than that. There is a depth and breadth to the challenge of the walk that is entirely unexpected. The idea behind the book was to walk from the south coast of England northward to the Scottish border and in doing so to develop a new trail through the English countryside, and in doing so he plants an acorn every mile in the hope that a line of oak trees would be his legacy. There his however so much history and philosophy drawn into the narrative that the book ends up being simply endlessly fascinating. You are constantly diverted by the quality of his observations and thoughts about the ever-changing countryside, intermingled with the observations by past writers, the history of the English, and indeed the deeper history of the British Isles through geological time. This is no dull tramp through country lanes this is a soaring evocation of life, time, change, and people in such a rich variety of hues. Much to enjoy, savour and learn from.

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The Troubled Man

By Henning Mankell

Book cover of The Troubled Man

Why this book?

I love good writing, and I love the escapism provided by detective and spy thrillers. Choosing between so many quality authors: Le Carré, Dexter, James, Rankin, Nesbo, etc. is almost impossible and completely unfair. However, the series of Wallander novels by Mankell is one of my favourites. I have chosen the final book in the series – but obviously you should start with the first! As with most detective stories, Mankell’s hero has a messy life, his father doesn’t understand him (and vice-versa), his wife has left him, he has a hit & miss relationship with his only daughter, but in this novel you can feel that Wallander’s life is slowly, but perceptibly, unravelling. The key events that are the focus of this tale become more and more apparently contradictory and complex and at times the tension is almost palpable. It must be difficult for novelists to draw a close to the fictional lives and worlds that they have created, as in the case of detective Kurt Wallander in Ystad, southern Sweden. Nevertheless, Mankell does it brilliantly and with enormous sympathy and insight into the human condition.

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