Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Books of the Year: Day Three: Recent Non-Fiction

Hello! And welcome! On this third day of my bumptastic books of the year, I give to you a selection of recent non-fiction. Which, er, for obvious reasons, are mostly to do with classics, but never mind. There's one about roads in there too.

1. Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler

This is a superbly erudite work tracing the birth of Latin as it fought against its neighbours (Oscan and Umbrian, anyone?) to become the global language that it still is. It's funny, well-written and even - dare I say it - gripping. Latin is alive! It also contains many interesting examples of real Latin, such as this, from a Roman school primer:

Et maledicit bestiarius? Dimitte me et dentes eius excutio.
Is this beastfighter dissin me? Let me go - I'll knock his teeth out.

Ego te excaeco.
I'll have your eyes out.

Video quid mihi facies.
I know your little game.

There is also a play written by a nun in the form of a Terentian comedy, about how maidens should keep their virtue, which is worth the price of the cover alone. And did you know that there were Incan princesses who wrote in Latin? (see picture). Oh yes. Ite! Legite! Emite!

2. Why Socrates Died by Robin Waterfield

This (also gripping) work traces the last days of the philosopher, placing him in a political and social context. He also has a marvellously clever interpretation of Socrates' last words - which you'll just have to read the book to find out.

3. On Roads by Joe Moran

Yes! It's a book about roads! I never thought I'd be excited by tarmac, but honestly, this is a work of genius. Moran has a novelist's sensibility; he interprets the psychological implications of roads in a way that J G Ballard would have been proud of. And if you've always wondered where Mills and Boon novels go when they die - well, they're under the wheels of your car.

4. A Single Swallow by Horatio Clare

Clare followed the swallows' migration from South Africa to Britain. This is a moving and vivid account of a young man's mental and physical journey.

5. Full Circle by Ferdinand Mount

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ferdinand Mount this year about this book - a warm, genial account of how in our thoughts and actions we really can't escape the classical world - and are in fact perhaps much closer to those Romans and Greeks than we think.

Toodle pip, till tomorrow ...

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