Truth can be stranger than fiction, as we’ve proved in our selection of non-fiction titles this month. (Who would believe in disappearing teaspoons or an organization that set out to collect people’s underwear for “smell samples“?)
To finish on a high note, let’s take a look at some of the real-life stories and strange truths uncovered in three non-fiction books recommended to me this week.
Would you believe that an eighteenth-century French woman disguised herself as a boy and sailed around the world for two years on a famous botanical expedition? Can you accept that a cult leader was so charismatic that he was able to convince over 900 people to abandon their homes, move with him to the jungles of Guiana, and then poison themselves with cyanide? And lastly, who would believe that a man would willingly abandon his family, move to the other side of the world with another woman and her children, and pass his second daughter off as his first child, Susan, in a deception that lasted more than twenty years?
This wonderful collection of 19th century books is one of my favourite apps. What’s not to love? The British Library is one of the world’s great libraries, and they’ve digitized thousands of books and made them available ‘online’ for free. At the touch of a button and the tap of a finger, a reader can have the book that they want to read up on the screen – in its entirety (no ‘selected pages only’ here) and as a facsimile (no bland, boring eBook pages that make every book look the same.) Continue reading
The Disappearing Spoon is a wonderful book about “madness, love and the history of the world from the periodic table of elements”. The title refers to a trick teaspoon made of gallium, a metal with a low melting point, which disappears as it stirs a hot cup of tea.
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a tale of love and fallout begins with a quote from Marie Curie: “There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life”. Lauren Redniss, the author, apologises. Because in fact Radioactive is all about connections, drawing fascinating parallels between the Curie’s personal lives and their laboratory work. Each of the book’s nine chapters is a double entendre; titled for a scientific effect with an equally applicable colloquial meaning. For example, in Magnetism she addresses both the Curie’s work on electromagnetic properties and their blossoming, passionate romance; in Isolation she addresses the application of nuclear research, the horror of Chernobyl, Pierre’s death, and the experience of abandonment.
How long is it since you heard a library praised for its true value?
“One test of a democracy, they say, is whether it grants equal access to the tools that make knowledge possible. The Freedom Charter certainly understood the significance of access to knowledge – and information – to a democracy. All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands.” (1)
I can’t remember the last time I heard the words ‘democracy’, ‘knowledge’ or ‘culture’ used in relation to Australian public libraries; the biggest issue seems to be their ‘relevance’ to the community (services like cafés, dog registration, parking permit clearance and speed dating.) (2)