Richard Hamblyn picks out some non-fiction gems

03 December 2012

We've asked our authors to tell us their favourite books of the year - and their long-standing favourites, too. Here, author Richard Hamblyn, author of The Art of Science, takes you through the non-fiction highlights of the year.

With authors as diverse as Galileo and Lewis Carroll, the extracts featured in The Art of Science span centuries and continents; they include startling revelations that changed the way we think and tackle more prosaic questions such as why the sea is salty; they consider the natural beauty of the snowflake and the man-made wonder of the first computer. What links them all is a desire to understand, explain and enrich the world, and the ability to communicate this in original, clear and engaging prose.

 

2012: A year in books

What is your favourite book of the year?

Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie (Sort Of Books): an invigorating and insightful collection of essays on landscape, nature, place, on travelling and on staying still. Her poetry collection, The Overhaul (Picador) is also pretty fine. 

What is your favourite Picador book ever? 

I grew up reading books from the Picador spinner, and was inspired by Picador’s early championing of literary non-fiction, such as Dispatches by Michael Herr; but I think the most cherished Picador title I own is The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S Thompson, which opened my eyes to the possibilities of writing nonfiction with style. 

What would you be if you weren’t a writer?

A geologist – there’s something mesmerising about the thought of delving into the layered earth. 

What was your favourite book as a child?

I used to love the Paddington books. ‘Please look after this bear’ is surely one of the most poignant lines in literature.

What is the book you recommend most?

Oranges by John McPhee (1967): a masterclass in how to write rhapsodic, poetic nonfiction about a seemingly unlikely subject. 

What is your favourite poem?

Dart by Alice Oswald (2002): a hypnotic 60-page excursion along the river Dart, made up of verbatim quotations from users of the river, incorporated into a meandering poetic stream that guides us from source to sea. 

Where do you write?

At home, or in my office at work (I teach creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London), or in a library somewhere; but always straight onto a laptop: I can no longer even read my own handwriting.

Can you give one piece of advice to people wanting to become a writer?

Don’t shy away from the big themes, even if you intend to write about apparently humdrum subjects. Also, your sentences need to sing, so always read your work aloud to yourself. How does it sound? How could it be made to sound better? 

One book that changed your life?

I’m not sure if it changed my life, but Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983) certainly made a powerful impression on me; it’s a book I regularly return to in search of writerly advice.

One book you have read more than once?

Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters.  Another masterclass (or should that be Masters-class): every writer can learn from Masters’s complete technical attention to structure (the big picture) and nuance (on the sentence level), as well as the way he succeeds in bringing his central character to life within the first couple of paragraphs. It’s an outstanding achievement.