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Time for my annual look back at what I’ve been reading – primarily for fun – this year. Reading has continued to be an important part of my life, despite recurring flares in my neurological disease throughout the year. I read mainly on my Kindle with an utterly gargantuan font. But that way I can get through a lot of books.

This year I finished 75 books, just over 20,000 pages read. For the full list see my Goodreads 2022 Reading Challenge page, which the following image shows part of:

series of book covers from some of those I read this year. Many varied covers, including fantasy, non fiction etc.

5 of the books I read were set in Japan and another 2 in other southeast Asian countries. Some of these came from the patron book club run by a book YouTuber I follow, Christy Anne Jones in Australia. But others were from the TBR paid recommendation service I signed up for a year of. Here you answer a probing questionnaire about your reading tastes, and a professional bibliologist recommends books to you. I’ve so far finished 5 of the 6 books TBR recommended to me this year, and some were really really strong, and all a delight. I was particularly keen to read books from other perspectives, other parts of the world, the LGBTQ community etc. Good stuff.

47 of the books finished were fiction, 28 non fiction. I tend to read multiple books at the same time. As usual fantasy was a huge part of my reading. I read very little sci-fi, despite being a huge fan of Doctor Who and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Fantasy fiction is a huge draw for me though, and I read many big ones, including three more in The Wheel of Time series, and smaller ones too. Another significant genre was historical fiction, and I also read a good number of children’s books and crime novels. Not so much horror this year. I think having been bereaved mid year it wasn’t so appealing this time around. And just a few graphic novels.

Generally the books I read this year were enjoyable. I left a few unfinished, but most that I finished were a good read. I’d like to highlight a few particular highlights, all books that were new reads for me this year. I also reread quite a few old favourites. Very good comfort reads.

My favourite book of the year was Babel by R.F. Kuang. This historical fantasy / alternative history book is set in the 1830s, largely in Oxford, and is a potent mix of academia, thriller and a vivid look at colonialism. It’s been a social media sensation this year, but it’s one of the strongest novels I’ve read new for a long time, and thoroughly deserves the praise it has earned. Highly and unquestionably recommended.

Another wonderful new read for me was Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. This is a lost fantasy classic, that I have long wanted to read, after hearing Neil Gaiman praise it. But only got to it when Christy read it – also prompted by Neil – and reviewed it on her YouTube channel. It’s a curious mix of a strange fantasy world, reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s own Stardust, but also with a strong feel of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

A popular British children’s classic that I finally got to is Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones, the first in the Chrestomanci series. I don’t know why I hadn’t read this years before. It’s delightful. Sort of similar in feel to Lud-in-the-Mist actually, but with elements of Edith Nesbit books, Harry Potter and much more besides.

Another standout book that I got to via Christy’s channel, this time through her patron book club monthly reads, was The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa. This was a potent tale of memory loss, mathematics and deep emotional connections. I didn’t expect to be so moved. And it raised many questions.

The last book I’d like to highlight as a standout new read for me was Hello, World! Opinion columns from the Daily Princetonian by Brian W. Kernighan. Yes the same man better known to former computer scientist me as a Unix pioneer and author of a definitive C language programming text book I relied on so much in my undergraduate years! This is a collection of his columns for the Princeton University student newspaper. And it’s a delightfully varied mix of academia, computer science, and just life and stuff.

So yes, a fun year of reading! I look forward to reading more next year.

Prompted by recent tweets I thought I’d draw up a list of my favourite books. I thought about widening beyond fiction, but in the end I’ve gone for the easier option of just favourite fiction books. Note that I’ve excluded “Complete Works” or complete series.

The list is generally not in order apart from the first book in it, which is by far my favourite. This was republished in a single volume soon after publication of the final third, so I think I can include it in its entirety:

  • The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

I first read this when I was too young to borrow books from the adult section of Hawick Public Library. So my Mum borrowed them for me. It has been a regular reread ever since.

The remaining 9 books are not in any order. They almost look like a best of from many favourite authors, with no author in the list twice. But for each author’s work there is a book I especially cherish. Here they are:

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (the first book of that title in the series)
  • Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens – despite my concerns re one particular aspect of the plot. But rereading it every few years is a constant delight.
  • Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett – the first in the Watch sub series, and the best for me still.
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny – I reread this every year in the run up to Halloween.
  • Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (the second book in the larger 5-book sequence)

That’s a really satisfying set of books for me. All ones that I adore, all ones that I reread with delight. There are many other books that I am extremely fond of. But these are the standout top 10.

I was lucky to do a PhD on historic Scottish reading habits and studied the books that many individual Scots were reading in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But there were virtually no records of individual readers’ favourite books, though it’s quite a common thing to ask nowadays. I think that it can provide an interesting snapshot view of a reader’s interests.

Really shocked at the cost of someone else receiving Evusheld privately in the UK, a preventative medicine against Covid to help immunosuppressed patients, many of whom do not generate any antibodies from vaccines. Unlike other countries the UK is not providing this publicly.

A single treatment of Evusheld lasts 6 months. It would cost up to £800 to the NHS but it’s not approved unlike so many other countries. It’s newly approved privately in the UK, and we’d been told £1000. Well someone I know has just got it. And it’s way way more than that.

£500 for consultation with a private doctor, £1600 for the drug, £160 administration. So about £2400, out of someone’s private coffers and that’s I think for just 6 months protection. This drug could save thousands of extremely vulnerable lives. Normal people can’t afford this.

I’m extremely lucky I’m getting some good antibodies, after 6 Covid vaccines (yes 6!). Though Covid vaccines trigger a devastating 3-month long neurological flare for me every single time. But Evusheld would make me feel safer, and protect others far more. Provide it on the NHS now!

Evusheld could be provided on the NHS to patients at considerably less cost per dose than private providers are selling it to patients directly. Yes it has a cost but for 500K people who are not being protected enough by vaccines and still at phenomenal risk it is needed now.

10 years ago this month in 2012 my Scottish Historical Review journal paper was published. Sole authored, it looked at book ownership in Scotland in the late eighteenth century, using a local case study of Dumfriesshire after-death wills and inventories. This was part of my PhD research into reading habits in Scotland in this period, and this was one of the first journal papers I published after completing my PhD at Dundee University in 2010.

I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective blog about this journal paper. The paper was published in Scottish Historical Review, and the full published PDF version is available on my website, in green Open Access form on my publications web page.

This research arose from my belief that testaments – Scottish after-death wills and inventories – could be a useful guide to the books people owned. To be fair I hadn’t always thought this way. But from my research assistant work on Bob Harris’s small towns project, researching Angus towns in the late 18th and early 19th century, I had discovered that Scottish testaments often mentioned books, in particular testaments with lists of personal possessions. Not consistently, not totally reliably, but enough to be informative. Sometimes only e.g. a “bundle of books” might be valued. But in other cases you might get a detailed list of titles owned. I was grateful for any clues at all. Note this is very different from the situation in England at the same time, where comparable probate records rarely record any great details of personal possessions after the 1720s.

I couldn’t possibly research testaments across the whole of Scotland, just for the practicality of the scale of it. Nor was a random based approach suitable, given the scarcity of references. I needed to study a local area’s complete testaments over a given time period, but in a manner that had to be feasible and practical for me to tackle as a small part of my PhD. In the end I settled for Dumfriesshire, which is semi-rural, but with some towns and many villages. And logistically it was feasible for me to study this area.

I persuaded the then National Archives of Scotland (now National Records of Scotland) to lend me digital images of testaments for Dumfries Commissary Court between 1750 and 1800. At that time they had never lent such a set of records, and only agreed somewhat reluctantly because of my disability situation – my progressive neurological illness meant that it was essential I could do the bulk of this research from home. But this loan also set the precedent for similar loans for other (less disabled) Scottish academics in future.

In total I borrowed digital images of 1,379 testaments, including 345 with detailed inventories and 82 with wills. I also did a manual check in the Edinburgh search room of warrants of inventories, additional papers of appraisements and inventories, for lists including books not copied into the registers of testaments.

As I wrote in the published journal paper:

References to books were found in over a third of the detailed inventories of personal possessions recorded in a quarter of the testaments in the court’s register.

i.e. where there was a surviving detailed inventory of personal possessions then a third of the time that would contain references to books.

Most of these found references were detailed lists of books, including their titles. In other cases there were passing references to books, or in some cases valuations of book furniture (e.g. book cases). In total I had details of 156 different book owners, including considerable information about them, and in many cases also about the books that they owned.

The bulk of the paper looks at the Dumfriesshire book owners found in a variety of ways. For example their spread through time and space is considered, and also their range of occupations. Unsurprisingly many were from generally more prosperous occupations, but the list also included others like a gardener, a smith, a labourer, and a servant.

The lists of books recorded allowed the types of books owned to be considered, both in a broader pattern, and for individual owners. Ownership of religious books was a constant feature, but over time other books appeared more and more in the lists, fitting with wider trends in books and reading at this time in Scotland. Many books could also be linked to the occupations of their owners, for example legal reference works owned by solicitors (“writers”), and also the work-related books owned by merchants, etc.

Alongside religious books classical books remained an ongoing presence, but they were also accompanied by other language books, especially French. Well-known Enlightenment books were owned, as well as many books of history, and voyages and travels. Periodicals and magazines were also a frequent presence.

One of my favourite sections of the paper looked at the very largest book collections recorded in these records. Perhaps unsurprisingly these also often were the references that mentioned book furniture, given the practical implications of storing a large collection of books. The question of where people bought the books was considered in this section too, drawing briefly on a local Dumfries bookseller who appears – with his entire detailed stock list – in the Dumfriesshire testaments I studied, having died in 1788.

Preparing my paper for publication was a delight, reworking things and strengthening the analysis and contextualisation. I would like to thank Catriona Macdonald who was the then journal editor for an easy and very systematic editorial process. And thanks too to the peer reviewers for their helpful feedback and suggestions.

The only downside was that the final pre-publication proofs came through as I was undergoing a summer of gruelling chemotherapy infusions at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. In fact I ended up having to proofread the journal paper one-handed, hooked up to a chemotherapy drip! It was that or I probably wouldn’t turn them around in time, given how ill I was likely to be (and indeed very much was) with side effects in subsequent days.

Looking back I am very proud of this paper. I hope to publish again in Scottish Historical Review in future. But this was a very positive experience, and one that I look back on fondly.

One of Haddington in East Lothian’s most famous sons is Samuel Smiles (1812-1904), author and government reformer. His best known work is a book called Self-Help (1859), arguing for the poor to improve their lot through self education and industry, a viewpoint that fits well with Victorian moral values and thinking, but might in some of its arguments raise eyebrows among many today.

Samuel’s father was also called Samuel Smiles. The other day professional genealogist Fergus Smith tweeted about a circa 1820 reference to the father, noting that he was working then as a stationer, not just the merchant he is often referred to in his son’s biographies.

This reminded me that I’d encountered the elder Samuel as a borrower in the free Haddington town library borrowing records I transcribed and analysed as part of my history PhD at Dundee University. Haddington was unusual at this time in having a free public library for its inhabitants to use, and its borrowing registers for many of the years 1732-1816 survive.

I thought it might be nice to blog here about what the father was reading. Each line below includes the date a book was borrowed from the library, the book borrowed details as noted at that time, and in many cases in brackets fuller title/publication details per the 1828 Haddington library catalogue.

  • 1810 Nov 1 – Burns Works vol 2d (Burns’s Works, 4 vols, 1803)
  • 1811 Jan 23 – Beauties of Scotland 4 Vo (Beauties of Scotland: containing an Account of the Agriculture, Commerce, Mines, Manufactures, Population, &c. of each County, 5 vols, plates)
  • 1811 Feb 1 – 1 vol Rollins Roman (Rollin’s Roman History, from the Foundation of Rome till the Battle of Actium, 16 vols)
  • 1811 Feb 21 – 2 vol Abercrumes wariers (Abercromby’s Martial Achievements of the Scots Nation, 2 vols)
  • 1811 Mar 15 – Robertsons History on Amaresia (sic) (Robertson’s History of America, 4 vols)
  • 1812 Feb 19 – 1 vol Cooks Voyages (Cook’s Voyages to the Pacific Ocean)
  • 1812 Mar 26 – 2 vol Capt Cooks Voyages
  • 1812 Apr 7 – 3 vol Coocks Voges
  • 1812 Sep 10 – 1 vol Rolins History
  • 1812 Oct 6 – 2 vol Rollins History
  • 1812 Oct 15 – 2d vol Rollins History
  • 1812 Oct 30 – Rollans History 3 vol
  • 1812 Dec 8 – 5 vol Rolins History
  • 1813 Feb 4 – 7 Vol Rollins History
  • 1813 Feb 27 – 8 Vol Roilns History
  • 1813 Apr 19 – 9 vol Rolins History
  • 1813 May 4 – Rolins History 10 vol

It is likely that father and son borrowed books after 1816, but I did not have access to borrowing records for that period. The earlier borrowing records we have are a rare survival. The original manuscript registers are held in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Incidentally Samuel Smiles the author appears in my writings about this library, because in his autobiography he recalled his early reading experiences at this Haddington library:

I did not make much use of the library. Patrick Hardie, the master of the English School, was the librarian; and when I took out Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, he havered a bit to me, in his dictatorial way, as to how I was to read it. I did not like this, and went to other libraries

To read more about the Haddington library at this time see either my PhD thesis or my Journal of Scottish Historical Studies academic journal paper about it. The latter is available freely online, via green Open Access rules, in the publications section of my personal website.

My Haddington library borrowing transcripts and database have been donated to the Books and Borrowing 1750-1830 project at the University of Stirling, and should hopefully appear online through that at a future date.

For #WorldMentalHealthDay I live with generalised anxiety disorder, diagnosed nearly 15 years ago. My GP thought it was no wonder living with a life threatening neurological disease since 1994. Many people live with mental health issues. Talk about it. End the stigma.

I’d also like to see more awareness of how medication can help mental health patients. Sure it’s not the answer for all, but SSRI Sertraline keeps my severe anxiety in order. There needs to be less fear about drugs that can help. Especially with a shortage of availability of talking therapies.

I’ve played and enjoyed traditional parser text adventure games since my first go in December 1980. My dad had borrowed an Apple II over Christmas, and one of the very first things I tried on it was Colossal Cave Adventure. Complete and utter instantaneous love. Oh and for computers too! I was only 8 then, but it’s not surprising I went on to study a computer science degree a decade later.

Growing up in Britain in the 1980s there was a vibrant home based computer coding scene, as youngsters tried to write games to emulate those they could buy, typically on cassette. Not just video games, but many text adventure games were coded. I never released anything commercially then, but was designing games from just a couple of years after that first Apple II try, coding in BASIC. In fact the book I had out on loan most often from Hawick public library was a book about programming text adventure games on the TRS-80 computer.

At university my love affair with text adventures continued. I played and coded in a multiplayer text based LPMUD game. And this was just the time that Graham Nelson was engineering Inform, allowing people to write their own Infocom style text adventures. His game Curses was a joy then. This era also saw the start of the IFComp, the annual competition for text adventure games, or as they were often called then interactive fiction. And this has continued ever since. Interactive fiction has since evolved to include different styles of game, including web based and choice. But remains a joy. I have also enjoyed writing and releasing my own games in Inform 7, as much as my health allows.

Anyway the original main point of this post was to say that the games for this year’s IFComp are out and available to play. Judges need only play and rate a minimum of 5 games for your votes to count. And judging runs through until mid November. 71 interactive fiction games I think this year, a mix of traditional parser text adventure games and web/choice ones. I playtested some of this year’s entries, which I enjoyed immensely. Looking forward to trying some of the others!

I’ve been reading a book about a stroke survivor, a neurologist actually. His stroke was really catastrophic, so different what I’ve experienced from my cerebral vasculitis since 1994. But there are so many shared experiences.

For example late on in his rehabilitation he would often get stuck, knowing what he wanted to do, but needing encouragement to do it. So eg sitting on the edge of the bed, but unable to stand up without encouragement. That is so familiar to me. Often I just ask my husband to encourage me to do something, like stand, or move my leg etc. I’ll typically say “I’m stuck. Help!” Often it happens when we get home from an outing, and it’s an almighty mind over matter effort to encourage me to move my legs out of the car, get up, and walk into the house, carefully. I could just vegetate there indefinitely on the spot.

Anyway an interesting book for me. I have had lots of mini strokes, and a bigger one in 2004. But I’ve had no neurology support re understanding what is going on with me, or for recovery or rehabilitation. So I battle on! But I wish I understood more about it.

The book is Surviving Stroke: The Story of a Neurologist and His Family by Helen Kennerley and Udo Kischka.

I was hoping to see some of this year’s online NarraScope interactive fiction conference in July. But I’ve just found out that it’s running on Gather this year, a meeting/conference system based largely on a virtual model of a conference area in the computer, top-down old-style graphics with little person avatars etc. Which all sounds fine and dandy, but I’ve known people struggle with it at large events. And for disability reasons I don’t think I could manage it successfully. It can also work very poorly sometimes on mobile devices, and I would be tuning in from bed. Luckily the talks will be recorded for later viewing, speaker permissions allowing. But I’m not signing up to attend this live. I have voiced my concerns about this software to the organisers, but it would be too late to change their plans now. Interactive fiction has a very large number of disabled users, many of whom might struggle to use Gather, for different reasons eg blind or partially sighted, hand control problems, cognitive issues re processing lots of info etc.

Gather meeting software in action

I’ve my 5th Covid vaccine coming up this week. 5th vaccine because I am eligible for the Spring Booster because I am severely immunosuppressed. Previously I had the usual first two Covid vaccines, then a special bonus 3rd primary because I’m severely immunosuppressed, then my first booster just after Christmas.

It is very likely – well almost certain – I will flare neurologically again after Covid vaccine #5. I have after the previous four Covid vaccines. If so that will probably wipe me out almost totally for another three months, starting about a week after my vaccine this week.

So this is probably my last week of a bit of respite – a bit because I am often waking up late afternoon even in this brief respite phase since the start of April after my symptoms finally eased after my 4th Covid vaccine in December.

I may seem bonkers putting myself through this repeatedly with the vaccines. But they could save my life. My medics and I are agreed that I should keep getting vaccinated. My neurological flares I can recover from, even if it takes three months each time. It is also very likely I will get a 6th Covid vaccine in the autumn …

In no way is this an anti vaccination post. Vaccines save lives, and especially people like me who are severely immunosuppressed. I had a very poor vaccine response to the first two vaccines, but my bonus 3rd one (a special pre booster one needed because I’m severely immunosuppressed) gave me a healthy dose of antibodies, which could save my life. My first booster then extended that protection. Many severely immunosuppressed people have not had such a good response, despite loads of vaccines.

But the Covid vaccines take a terrible toll on me, because my auto immune neurological disease cerebral vasculitis is in my case so unstable. Each time I have a Covid vaccine I have three months of dramatically increased bladder incontinence, crippling headaches, sleeping up to 18 hours a day and phenomenal sedation even when awake, and appalling arm and leg control. It is amazing that I am not raging about this more. In my old consultant’s words I’m just too “phlegmatic”, which I eventually realised was a bit of a compliment!

I can access antiviral treatment if I catch Covid. I can also still access free testing to help me get treatment in time. What would really help though is to have the Evusheld preventative antibody treatment, which is designed to prevent severely immunosuppressed people like me catching Covid in the first place. But the UK government hasn’t bought any Evusheld yet, unlike just about every other comparable country.

Just don’t anyone say to me we are living with Covid, or even worse Covid is over, as a dental hygienist said to me the other week. I am getting through the pandemic, but at a terrible cost in terms of how the vaccines affect me. No way is it over for me, and many other people like me.