There's a photograph at the beginning of this wonderfully illustrated book entitled "Bookshop by gaslight, London, c. 1920" - it features a woman outside a bookshop under an awning on an obviously bleak and rainy evening engrossed in a book. The great adventure of reading and its great consolation is all in the photo. That is the keynote of this amazingly ambitious collection of personal essays on over 70 of the world's centrally important texts. You get the impression that these texts are so precious and yet so vulnerable - there seems to be a diminishing band of people who read these canonical works and pass them on (in some way) to those around them. Whitfield's intention is to inspire us to read as he has done, and for these great works of the human mind not to pass into oblivion. If you like spending time with men and women of genius then Peter Whitfield's book is like the genial and generous host who introduces such people to us at an intellectual soiree. You can rest easy after reading "Universe" because you know about Tennyson's poetry as well as Hubble's work with the huge reflector telescope at Mount Wilson in California. You know about Darwin's voyage on board HMS Beagle, and Odysseus' attempts to resist the Sirens. If you've already read the text it feels great to re-visit it, if not then you are sure to be inspired to catch up on one or two "lost" classics. Whitfield's essays cover biographical details of authors, social and historical context, the ideas and achievement of the text itself, and personal reflections on the significance of such works for today. To have these texts in no other order than alphabetical is a revelation. Books from completely different ages and parts of the world (and intellectual disciplines) are juxtaposed with complete bravado - after the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins we get Newton's Principia Mathematica, and after Galileo's Starry Messenger we get Nietzsche's Sunrise. The unexpected continuities and contrasts are extraordinary. A great read and a great reference book. A portable university!
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