Welcome to our weekly un-paywalled Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features Ask A Historian by Greg Jenner, The Good, the Bad and the Greedy by Martin Vander Weyer and David Hockney – Lives of the Artists.
For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
Ask A Historian: 50 Surprising Answers to Things You Always Wanted to Know by Greg Jenner (Orion Publishing), £16.99.
Have you ever wondered who made the first gag? Who the wealthiest person is to have ever lived? Or, perhaps something with more zeitgeist appeal – which period in history would we have been able to deal with a zombie virus? (Spoiler alert: it’s the “kill out to help out” Vikings). Expect answers to all these questions and many more in Greg Jenner’s Ask A Historian. The latest book from the public historian, broadcaster and author takes a deep dive into history, spanning the Stone Age through to the Swinging Sixties, to provide answers to the things you’ve always been curious about, but didn’t know who to ask.
Ask A Historian is divided up into chapters like “Fact or Fiction?”, “Origins & Firsts”, “Fashion & Beauty” to “Nations & Empires,” and the pages are filled with 50 genuine questions from members of the public taken from a questionnaire. Together, the questions make for an enticing cocktail of the amusing (Did Anne Boleyn really have three nipples?) mixed with the informative (Who invented maths?) garnished with the downright mindboggling (How do we know what people’s accents and languages sounded like in the past?). As we know from his commendable work on the hit television series Horrible Histories, the podcast You’re Dead to Me, and in his previous book Dead Famous, it’s clear that Jenner was unleashed upon this mortal coil to bring history to the masses and reignite the spark of the past with zest and zeal. In juggling both the role of ancient Greek scholar and medieval court jester in Ask a Historian, Jenner has delivered an ideal stocking filler that is as enlightening as it is entertaining.
The Good, the Bad and the Greedy: Why We’ve Lost Faith in Capitalism by Martin Vander Weyer (Biteback Publishing), £20.
Capitalism has lost its moral compass and it needs reputational repair, says the Spectator’s business editor Martin Vander Weyer. That’s why he has written The Good, the Bad, and the Greedy. Despite the cowboys of bad business being more Fred Goodwin than Clint Eastwood, Weyer makes an engaging case that despite its many virtues, capitalism’s reputation is being damaged by individuals and businesses who neglect the social context in which they work. Tax minimisation, share buybacks and the bizarreness of Jeff Bezos are all doing capitalism rotten damage, he says, and its supporters should tackle the problems before the far left does.
Martin Vander Weyer is a financial journalist of more than three decades standing who makes complex corporate jargon understandable. His argument for capitalists to wake up and smell the coffee is clear and powerful. Though his advice for reform occasionally reads like asking for the impossible, this is a highly readable account of why we need the right approach to wealth creation.
David Hockney (Lives of the Artists), James Cahill (Laurence King Publishing), £12.99.
Growing old is tough. From portraits of nude lovers in compromising positions influenced by Walt Whitman, to accepting art school awards in gold lamé jackets – the young David Hockney was one cool kid. The older Hockney of iPad landscapes and stained glass windows for the Queen continually runs the risk of seeming like a shadow of his former, California-peroxide blonde younger self.
James Cahill’s Lives of the Artists: David Hockney goes some way to resolving these tensions between young avant-garde and older establishment. Through a birds-eye view of the artist’s whole life, Cahill draws links between Hockney’s polaroid experiments and his later forays into technology. The iPad phase is less of a radical departure from traditional fine art methods than it is a continuation of Hockney’s desire to experiment. Cahill notes how Hockney became fascinated by the possibilities of a photocopier for seven months.
Hockney’s artistic development is masterfully – if briefly – sketched by Cahill. As is his personal life: his relationship with Pete Schlesinger is equal parts tumultuous and tender, and his later life in Yorkshire and Bridlington receives just as much attention. But, if there is one fault with Cahill’s book it is its lack of pictures: there are black and white photographs of Hockney, Schlesinger, Warhol, and their other acquaintances, but none of Hockney’s art itself. It is difficult to see how any book proclaims to be a life of the artist without showing any of the art.