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This year I’ve been an online attendee of the Edinburgh Book Festival. I thought it might be helpful to blog some thoughts about this, and in particular how it compared for me to being there in person in the past.

I’ve been going to the Edinburgh Book Festival many times since the late 1990s. In the early visits I would travel down by train. More recently, as my neurological disease progressed, my husband and I had to switch to driving down with my wheelchair and staying a couple of nights in a hotel. Much more costly and time consuming, but giving me much valued experiences and memories.

This year the festival is being held in a new venue, and is offering a hybrid in-person/online attendance option. It would not have been safe for me to go there in person this time, being immunosuppressed during a Covid pandemic. The vaccine has fortunately given me antibodies – yay! – but at an extremely low level. So I am still at great risk, and being ultra cautious. But the availability of online tickets for most of the book festival’s events this year allowed me to attend in a different way.

The highlight of the festival for me has always been the author talks. I’ve written here before about attending some of these in person, e.g. in 2013, 2015 and 2018. Usually because I have to travel from a distance I can only see one or at the very most two author talks, depending on the timing options, and what I can get tickets for. But online attendance allows me to potentially attend more events more events spread over more days, even at a distance.

This year I bought online tickets for three events: Helena Attlee talking about the tale of a violin through time (I am a long lapsed violin player), James Robertson talking about his new ghostly novel set in the Angus glens (I live in Angus), and Denise Mina talking about her new novella retelling of the Rizzio murder. I watched the first and third of these live, and the second on catchup in the middle of a neurologically disturbed night. All were watched from bed in my pyjamas, on my iPad with Bluetooth headphones. Definitely a form of access I haven’t enjoyed attending the festival before!

With each event I was able to watch video footage of the author talks, with good camera shots of the authors, interviewers and audience in the room (a very spaced out and masked up audience). The audio was clear, and the experience of watching reassuringly close to being there in person.

In addition to the live video stream online attendees have access to online text chat rooms, where we can share comments, and ask questions to be posed to the speakers. I didn’t ask a question myself, but participated actively in the chats. I was pleased to see the online questions asked by the interviewers on behalf of the online audience members. This was integrated well alongside questions from the audience in the room in Edinburgh.

So yes, positive impressions from watching author talks online. On the downside online participants do miss out on face to face signing events, though some of the author talks had prebookable (days in advance) online signing options. I was more concerned though at how online members could miss out on the festival bookshop. Visiting the festival bookshops – adult and children’s – was always a major highlight for me of attending in person. With a huge range of books on offer, including from publishers I would never normally encounter, I would always come away with unexpected gems.

Yet the bookshop is not promoted effectively in the festival website. Yes on individual events pages there is a link to order book(s) associated with the event. And clicking on that takes you to the bookshop website. But otherwise the online bookshop is not linked as far as I can see from the festival website. Even if you know it exists it can be very hard to find. Google is often the best option! Which is ridiculous. Because when you get there it is possible to browse the shelves well, and find gems. Ok not the same as physically in person, but worth some minutes of your time for many online attendees.

So yes some downsides, but overall I’m really happy I could attend in person. Very grateful in fact. Looking ahead it may be safer for me to attend in future years, but my neurological disease is progressing, and that might simply not be practical. But I’m encouraged that the festival organisers have said that they value the online attendance, and intend to continue to make it part of the festivals in future years. So hopefully I can attend in that way in future years. And maybe the bookshop be better linked too?

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I recently started reading this novel by Scottish writer Andrew Greig. Set in late 16th century Scotland, it is written in the words of William Fowler, student, poet, and later secretary to Anne of Denmark, Queen of King James VI and I. William Fowler also happens to be my 12xg-grandfather, and someone whose family history I have researched extensively, beyond that published to date.

Reading a good Scottish historical fiction book is always exciting for me. Reading one supposedly written in the words of my ancestor is a step beyond! Early on in the book Fowler starts as a young undergraduate student at St Andrews University, something I would do myself over 400 years later.

Fowler’s family history in the book is problematic for me, with an invented older sister, as well as elimination of at least two surviving Fowler brothers. I have to cut the author some slack though. He is after all writing a work of fiction, and needs to make sensible choices for the story he is telling.

I also have some doubts re the St Andrews sections. A memorable early scene in the book sees young Fowler buying a fluffy red student gown. Historians know St Andrews students were wearing gowns then. But the colour red may have been introduced later. Of course it is the modern colour, that of my own fluffy St Andrews gown, and my husband’s (we met as undergraduates at St Andrews).

However the late 16th century setting is gripping, the characterisations and descriptions strong, and I am finding the book a briskly written real page turner. Even if I do need to switch off my genealogist side a bit! I am looking forward to reading the rest of it over the coming weeks.

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This week I attended the online SHARP 2021 book history conference. SHARP is the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, and holds annual academic conferences for book historians. Usually these are held face to face, and I have attended many of them in the past. But this year, because of the Covid pandemic, it was a fully online conference, hosted by the University of Muenster. The conference ran over five days, from Monday 26th July 2021 to Friday 30th July 2021, with often very packed days of parallel sessions, up to 12 hours or so each day.

I was particularly grateful for the conference being online because due to my progressive neurological disease it is now increasingly difficult for me to attend face to face conferences, even those held relatively nearby to me. It may also not be feasible for me to travel to attend any more international ones, given how knocked out I am from my brain disease, the logistics of getting there and extra costs/difficulties of attending with a helper, and problems re wheelchair access.

Even so I could only attend a small fraction of the time available to attendees, being knocked out sleeping for up to 18 hours a day due to my brain disease. Luckily I could attend from bed, in my pyjamas, with my iPad and headphones. Hence my not turning my camera on at any point when asking questions!

The conference programme was full of variety and interest, as well as some experimentation in the format of panels. There were quite a lot of 5-1-5 panels where 5 speakers would each speak for 5 minutes about a single slide per speaker before a Q&A. I must admit that I was initially rather baffled at the start of the week by what 5-1-5 meant, and ended up going back to the conference’s original call for papers for clarification! Generally though I tuned in for 60 minute panels with 2 speakers (the conference’s 60 minute variant on the more traditional 90 minute panels with 3 speakers), where each would speak for 20 minutes, before usually a lively Q&A with the audience. All handled by a chair – always very effectively in my experience at SHARP 2021. I must also praise the speakers for running admirably to time, allowing lots of time for audience participation.

The conference’s primary online delivery method was Zoom, with up to 4 rooms used simultaneously for individual sessions. Generally this worked well for me, tuning in on my iPad. Though I had some hiccups on day 2 getting into the relevant room, with initial passcode errors. So I missed the first 25 minutes of that panel, but fortunately caught most of a talk I was particularly keen to see. Online conferencing can sometimes seem very impersonal, but I found it very effective for following speakers and their slides, and for good Q&A sessions afterwards. There was also a lively text chat section available during each session, which was well utilised by audience members to make comments on points mentioned, share references and knowledge, and to ask questions. Other questions were asked live via webcam/microphone as appropriate.

The range of participants at SHARP conferences is always varied, and unusually welcoming to young scholars. But I felt this online version was particularly wide ranging in the people taking part. It was especially nice to see many questions being asked by PhD students, as well as PhD and Masters students presenting their work at the conference alongside more established academics. There was throughout a very strong sense of camaraderie and willingness to help and share information and knowledge, which was very much appreciated.

Most of the sessions were held live and not recorded, so had to be watched at the scheduled time or you’d have missed it. But a fair number were pre recorded, allowing conference attendees to watch when suitable, including throughout August. I even started watching two recorded panels on the Sunday before the conference officially started! This did not allow me to take part in live discussion with the presenters, but was an appreciated and welcome innovation. It probably also helped with some time zone and availability issues. Though it was very nice to see people attending from all around in the world, in multiple time zones. For example North Americans waking up to watch during the day in Europe while Antipodeans were staying up late to catch online panels live.

Over the week and my earlier pre-conference start I watched 9 panels. Topics covered were diverse, ranging over bookselling during a pandemic, biblioforensics and book biography, the early modern English book trade and copyright and stationer wills, dispersed libraries and library organisation (including Samuel Pepys!), the book trade in present day Mexico City and New Delhi, SHARP’s own journal Book History and its new paperback incarnation, new research into Scottish library borrowing registers (a project I’m involved with, having gifted some of my own transcripts of borrowing records from my many years ago PhD on historic Scottish reading habits), translating medieval/Renaissance books between English/Scots and Spanish and vice versa, and initiatives at the Bodleian library in Oxford re digitisation of material. All were fascinating for me, and again just a tiny fraction of the events on offer to attendees over the full 5 days of the conference.

For all the events I attended I was an avid viewer of the presentations. Often participating in the chat too, and asking questions in the panels, sometimes through the text chat, occasionally unmuting my microphone (but camera still off – pyjamas!) to discuss something more complex. Throughout I felt thoroughly engaged, inspired, and eager to do more research of my own, and learn more about some of the issues and topics I learned about during the conference.

A nice bonus is that attending the conference prompted me to rejoin SHARP. I have been a member for many years in the past, but drifted away in recent years, as my progressive disease was worsening quite dramatically. But I am still an active researcher of book history and reading history, and attending the conference inspired me to rejoin the society. The only question was whether I would rejoin with a Book History journal included. While attending the event discussing the new incarnation of the journal my mind was made up: get the new paperback journal! Plus I should add that the $38 reduced rate for students / independent scholars / retirees helped too!

Over the coming weeks – throughout August – I plan to watch more recorded panels and keynote sessions. I’m very much looking forward to this. Looking further ahead I hope that I can participate in SHARP conferences in future in some way, albeit remotely. I think it’s unlikely as I say that I can ever attend SHARP in person again. So I hope there will continue to be some online provision, even after most book historians have returned to a more normal way of working.

I also want to thank the organisers for an extremely well run event. I would particularly like to praise conference lead Corinna Norrick-Rühl, who valiantly helped me when I had connection problems. And she must have had so much else to deal with all week! I really appreciated the personal touch.

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It’s International Women’s Day, and the Books and Borrowing 1750-1830 project I’m involved with blogged today about women borrowers in libraries.

I studied such records as part of my PhD examining Scottish reading habits between circa 1750 and 1820. Women are largely hidden as readers in historic library borrowing records, especially in libraries which restricted access to men. But sometimes they show up as borrowers directly, or it is recorded that a book was borrowed on their behalf. Other female members of the family may potentially have read any other book borrowed from the library.

At Haddington’s Gray Library which I studied female borrowers make a prominent appearance, and their borrowing patterns can also be compared with male borrowers at the same time. For example it’s possible to detect that they were borrowing on different days of the week from men, and that they also tended to choose a different pattern of books. For full details see my Journal of Scottish Historical Studies paper on this, which is available free in open access form.

However for this blog post I want to focus on one female Haddington borrower in particular. Jean Veitch (ca1770-1804) was my 5xg-granny, the daughter of a watchmaker in the town, and granddaughter of a Border laird in Peeblesshire and Selkirkshire. Jean first appears in the Haddington library’s borrowing records in June 1785, when she was about 15, and her father William started to borrow books for her. Over the following months he borrowed several volumes of Fielding’s Works for Jean. At this time the library asked that anyone borrowing especially for someone else note that when they took out the book. This rule may not always have been followed rigidly though, and it is possible that William borrowed some other books for his daughter over the following years.

In December 1790 Jean is first recorded borrowing a book in her own name, a volume of Cook’s Voyages. A week later she borrowed a volume of Pope’s Works. This was the last mention of her in the record.

Jean married in 1794, to my 5xg-granddad Richard Somner. For more on her life story see my blog post about her.

Also potentially of interest is my blog post about her grandfather James Veitch of Glen and Bowhill, including the extensive library of books he left when he died. I don’t know if any of these passed down to his watchmaker son in Haddington.

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I thought it might be nice to look back at the books I’ve finished in the previous 12 months. Others are still in progress, but there are 75 titles I finished reading in 2020, accounting for over 21,000 pages. For the full list see my Goodreads 2020 Reading Challenge page, which the following image shows a snippet from.

Books read in 2020

Here are two charts showing the numbers of books finished and pages finished per month during 2020.

Books finished per month during 2020
Pages finished per month during 2020

I find this reading total astonishing, given how ill neurologically I was for much of the year. It’s clear I battled to keep reading, almost always with my utterly gigantic Ladybird book style font in my Kindle. There aren’t many words visible on each screen with such a huge size font, but I gobble up books this way. Reading gives me enormous comfort, and despite the circumstances in which I have to read, unable to generally read conventional print books, or even library large print editions (I find they have too much text on a page for me to concentrate on comfortably), I read eagerly and substantially, as the page count figures show.

The most popular subject for me in 2020 was fantasy (20 books), followed by sci-fi and non-fiction (18 books each), historical fiction (14 books) and children’s books (10 books) – the last including many classic texts. These categories overlap though, so should not be viewed as distinct. Also sci-fi is a little misleading, particularly the multiple Doctor Who books it includes, which fall under sci-fi by default, but in many cases are much more than that. Though to be fair I did read some “hard” scifi this year, with I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, two Star Trek books, and a partial reread of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

Only 9 of the books I finished this year were rereads, for example the Hitchhiker’s books, some Sherlock Holmes, and my favourite reread every year for the run up to Halloween, Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October.

I’d like to briefly mention a number of books which were particular highlights for me in 2020. A non-fiction I enjoyed immensely was Charlotte Higgins’s Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain. This is an account of trips around Britain to visit Roman sites, recounting the history in a thoroughly readable manner. Erudite, educational, but also a page turner and a thoroughly well-written work.

My standout fiction highlight was a classic that I’d never read before, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I didn’t know the story from seeing the film in the past, if I ever did. Reading the novel was an eye opener. I think it does dip a little mid way, as the location shifts and the cast expands suddenly. But it picks up again, and as a fiction read I found it astonishing. I learned about a period of French history I knew little of, and was wowed by the combination of genres (revenge plot, social intrigue, crime etc.) and rich characters and vivid descriptions throughout. Apart from Dickens this must be one of the longest fiction books I’ve read for a very long time, but I’m sure I will reread it in future.

The last two books that I want to mention are both classic time-slip novels for children, which I’m surprised I hadn’t read before. First up was Alison Uttley’s time-slip children’s novel A Traveller in Time. This sees a 20th century girl slip between her time and the late 16th century, getting caught up in intrigues with the doomed Mary Queen of Scots. I saw the TV version in 1978, and still remember scenes from it. The sense of place and the historical period in the book is strong, but against that I found much of the book a little too convenient, for example how easily the people in the past accepted the modern girl appearing suddenly in their midst. A stronger example of the time-slip genre for me was the other read this year, Penelope Lively’s A Stitch in Time. Again a modern era child makes links to the past, though more subtly handled. I found it quite unsettling in places, but in a good way. By the end I was rather wowed.

So yes, rather a packed year of reading, despite huge health problems, particularly between March and October. I’m really pleased to have been able to keep reading. On to more books in 2021!

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I keep track of my reading in Goodreads and last year finished 84 books. Looking back on them there are a number of patterns that emerge, and I thought it might be interesting to blog about overall trends and some specific titles that I particularly enjoyed. Note these 84 titles are just those books I read from cover to cover. I also dip in and out of a lot of academic books – usually it is rarely necessary to read those cover to cover for what I need as an academic historian. But the 84 books were read fully.

Unsurprisingly a high portion, over a sixth, of the books finished were Doctor Who ones. Yes I’m a big fan. Most were fiction, including some of the fairly recent new Target novelisations of Tenth and Twelfth Doctor stories. But I also read older books, both more recent Who full length novels, 1990s ones like Paul Cornell’s Human Nature, and some pre-1989 Targets. A particular highlight among the Who books was the new novel Scratchman, based on a movie script idea by Tom Baker and Ian Marter, and turned into a novel more recently by James Goss with Tom Baker’s help. This was completely bonkers, and a delight from start to end. It also made some fun creative decisions writing-wise, in a similar way to the experimentation that Steven Moffat did with his new Target novelisation of his 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor. Most of my Doctor Who reads were fiction, but I also read some Obverse Books Black Archive books, which analyse individual Doctor Who stories, and are always fun.

After Doctor Who the next biggest chunk of books were classic literature. Non-English titles (read in translation) were Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (which I insisted throughout on referring to as the Muskehounds), Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. All fantastic reads, but the first and third particularly so. From 19th century English literature I read Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (not a single likeable character in there I think!), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (that one superbly done), and reread my favourite Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. From slightly later was EM Forster’s A Room With a View. And I read and enjoyed Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, though more for the adventure and scene setting than the hefty romance novel elements.

I made a deliberate effort to read some Scottish books this year, including Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song which I had never read. I really enjoyed that, though more for the sense of place and impressive presentation of language. Another Scottish book read set in a similar era was Donald S. Murray’s As the women lay dreaming about the Iolaire disaster. And I read and enjoyed David Greig’s play Dunsinane, a sequel of sorts to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Another Scottish author read was Iain Banks – the scifi “Iain M Banks” version of him! – with his The Player of Games, the first of his Culture novels that I’d read, and an inventive plot based around game playing. Another scifi book read was Michael Moorcock’s steampunk The Warlord of the Air, a theme that continued with a reread of Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine. Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars was a fun scifi alternative history of the early days of space flight. And from the Worldcon scifi convention in Dublin’s panel on Irish fantasy and scifi I learned about 19th century Belfast writer Robert Cromie, and read his The Crack of Doom.

Another recommendation that I picked up from the Dubin Worldcon was Jane Gilheaney Barry’s Cailleach about witchcraft and a family in rural Ireland. Many other fantasy books were read over the year, including Ben Aaronovitch’s first Rivers of London, Diana Wynne Jones Deep Secret, Charles Stross The Nightmare Stacks, Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow, and Andrew David Barker’s The Electric – that last an unexpected joy, a love letter to old films and the magic of cinema.

I’ve mentioned a number of 2019 rereads already. There were others, including Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows, Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills (part 2 of her Merlin trilogy), Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch (part 3 of her Dark is Rising fantasy series), Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, and my annual pre-Halloween reread of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October. For that last one, a Lovecraftian delight, I even treated myself to a first edition copy of the book. I reread it every year, without fail.

I finished many non fiction books. Some were related to my academic research, including Murray Pittock’s Enlightenment in a Smart City and Martha McGill’s Ghosts in Enlightenment Scotland. Others were read purely for fun. I greatly enjoyed Mary Beard’s SQPR, a history of the Roman empire. Also Chris Lintott’s The Crowd and the Cosmos, about the Zooniverse project, which was arguably more interesting for its discussions about issues of handling big data and crowd participation than the astronomy content. Other Tolkien books read included Ian Brodie’s The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook about the films (highly recommended) and two Tolkien books bought in a Palgrave sale, The Keys of Middle Earth (excellent introduction to Old English and Norse etc. studied through Tolkien’s reuse of themes/topics) and the less successful The Riddles of the Hobbit. I also read graphic novels, including Doctor Who actress Jessica Martin’s excellent Life Drawing, and a British Museum manga exhibition book.

Crime novels were also a presence in my reading, ranging from classic crime (including the first Campion and an Agatha Christie) through more modern works (including a Hamish Macbeth and the first Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael – the latter yet another reread), and my first read of Donna Leon’s Venice set crime novels, read just after we came back from a trip to the city. I’m less interested in real life crime or anything too gory, but like books that have a good sense of place and plot. I lean towards older crime novels.

Just three computing books show up on my 2019 list. A fun, quick read was Steven Howlett’s A Diary of an 80s Computer Geek, which recalled 1980s British home computing, albeit with a heavy leaning towards the ZX Spectrum. Far less successful was Cara Ellison’s Embed with Games, which promised interesting insights into game developers, but ended up being far too much about the author’s own life and travails. Far better for me was Jason Schreier’s Blood, Sweat and Pixels, which gave an often agonising behind the scenes account of the development of a good number of computer games, both small-scale indie ones with a single developer, and huge large studio projects. It did not always end well, but was a riveting read.

Other than this there were some other scattered books. I particularly enjoyed another Obverse Books publication, Paul Magrs’ festive Bowie tale Stardust and Snow. Recommended reading, especially for any David Bowie fan. Another highlight was the reprinted edition of the Usborne World of the Unknown Ghosts book. This book captivated many children back in the 1970s and 1980s, but somehow passed me by. Now rectified!

So it’s been a good year of reading for me. Almost all read on my Kindle with a gigantic font (think the youngest children learning to read book style, including some Ladybird books) that helps me overcome significant reading problems from neurological disease. Next year I think I’ll continue trying to read more word literature books, and already have some lined up waiting on my Kindle. But beyond that who knows! Looking forward to it anyway.

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Photo of Grand Canal in VeniceI recently returned from our silver wedding anniversary trip to Venice, our third visit to the city since the 1990s. We always go in winter, out of season. It’s much quieter, and very atmospheric. But of course you run the risk of the acqua alta or high tides. And this year has been exceptionally bad for that, with already the worst tides to hit Venice for over 50 years. Given that, just days before our long-planned trip, we considered carefully whether we should still go. But taking into account the tide forecasts, and armed with our wellies we were taking anyway, we went ahead. We know the city well, and were confident we could get on well enough. Also we checked that our hotel had electricity and its lifts were working. As it was we flew in on another day of exceptionally high tides, albeit later in the day after levels had dropped a bit. Even so, when we got to our hotel the staff were still in rubber boots, albeit expecting to be back in normal footwear the next day.

I was most struck by the sense of resilience among Venetians we met. Everywhere there were still signs of the recent problems, with raised walkways at the ready if needed. Many shopkeepers were still cleaning out their flooded shops, and more metal flood barriers were being attached to buildings in case the high floods returned. And, of course, home owners were hugely affected, and trying to restore a sense of normality to their damaged homes. Everywhere many Venetians still wore wellies out and about, even on drier days, and were getting on with things in a stoic manner. But we always found people welcoming, kind and generous.

As a disabled visitor Venice poses many challenges, indeed I hadn’t thought I would ever get back again until my neurological disease unexpectedly became more stable for a time at least. I walk with two sticks permanently now, and struggle with stairs and distance. Venice is best explored on foot, but then you have to contend with bridges – with steps up and down each side – and of course crowds, even if the latter are far less of an issue out of season. We did see a wheelchair user boarding a vaporetto – water bus – but both of us wondered how well he would get on elsewhere in the city. There are lifts now for some of Venice’s larger bridges, but they are often out of order. And that still leaves many smaller bridges to cope with. To add to the hazard many tourists stop on top of bridges to take photos and selfies, so become obstacles. Much cursing. At least most folk were walking on the right hand side, in the Italian manner.

On the plus side we made many wonderful new memories. Much of our time saw visits to familiar sites. I was particularly keen to go back to the Accademia Gallery, to see massive detailed paintings by Gentile Bellini and others. I especially love the enormous city scenes with architectural details, that seem to jump off the canvas, like a 3D picture or stereo photo. This time I also saw the newly restored Vittore Carpaccio narrative cycle of St Ursula paintings. Gobsmacking. On the downside there were a ridiculous number of stairs in the building, and only limited lifts – asking about a lift on entrance got no helpful response, so after buying our tickets I battled up the opening stairs to the first floor. The lack of lifts would deter me from going back. But there are some gorgeous artworks in there. Also on the art front my husband Martin had an unplanned but wonderful visit to the Museo Querini Stampalia where he was blown away by the amazing ceilings and delightful collection of paintings and other artworks. He couldn’t stop talking about it and he’s not normally into art like this.

Another highlight was riding the vaporetto water buses, up and down the Grand Canal. We used these to shortcut the amount of walking I needed to do, and to cross the Grand Canal easily. So it was very much a case of leapfrogging from one stop to another. I’d forgotten the sensation of sitting inside the vaporetto stop (a floating box with seats), rocking gently, waiting for the vaporetto to arrive and bump heavily into the stop. If you want to use the vaporetti to help with mobility problems like this buy a multi day tourist ticket, which is good value. You can even buy one at Marco Polo airport when you arrive, then have the ticket in hand. Vaporetti staff were very attentive and supported me as I made my way on to and off the boats with my sticks. Though I never felt unsafe. I wouldn’t like to do that transfer in a wheelchair though.

Caffe Florian in St Mark’s, the world’s oldest coffee shop, was extensively damaged by the floods, but reopened during our stay. We turned up on my second outing day, got a quiet table inside, and treated ourselves to a wonderful meal of sandwiches, ice cream and cake, amazing coffees and chilled drinks. The service was sublime. A real treat, and somewhere we were delighted to return to. Another highlight was visiting our favourite restaurant, near our hotel, for a lovely Italian meal, in an atmospheric room looking out to a nearby canal. Superb food, and, again, incredibly welcoming service. We couldn’t have had a nicer time there.

Venice is, of course, a city filled with shops to appeal to tourists. I’d made a long list of the shops I wanted to get to, largely inspired by the Venezia Autentica website. In the end some were still closed, recovering from the recent floods. But we did manage to visit the masks shop I wanted to go to, and bought an amazingly blingy full face cat mask. Another must visit was Scriba pen shop north of St Mark’s. Set in an extremely compact unit, Scriba cram in a phenomenal range of pens, stationery and their own marble paper journals and notepads they bind with their own traditional presses. I’m a fountain pen fan, but didn’t need to buy any more fountain pens. But I did fancy a Murano glass dip pen, and the shop put together a set with my choice of glass pen (style and colour), glass stand, and ink colour in a wee bottle. All marvellously packaged up, safe for travels home. I also bought a good sized marble paper covered lined journal. Oh and they have a section of the shop set up where you can try the dip pens before buying.

As an academic I’m obviously prone to buying books. I managed to largely restrain myself this time though, thinking of taking our wellies back in our suitcases (the wellies had already taken up a lot of suitcase space on the journey out). But I was delighted to pick up an Oxford University (!) book about the printing revolution in Europe 1450-1500. Packed full of illustrations and interesting infographics, it was perfect for book historian me. My husband also bought a number of fascinating books in the Museo Querini Stampalia shop.

Having a comfortable hotel was vital. Location was important, given how difficult walking is for me. Luckily we stayed in a great place before, just a short distance from St Mark’s, en route to the Accademia, but in a very quiet side street. As usual I had to sleep extensively, in between days of activity. Luckily we’d allowed time, a week visit this time, but in practice that meant we would fly in, then I slept all the next day, then a day of activity, then another day of sleep, before a second day of activity, then more sleep before flying home. On those days I slept my husband explored Venice on foot and by vaporetto, often in wellies, and had a great time.

Visiting Venice is always a bittersweet experience, and that was no less the case this time. There is a palpable sense of decay, a city clinging on despite the ravages of time. But it is also an uplifting place to visit, full of curious nooks and crannies to explore and get lost in, gorgeous things to see, and welcoming people. Winter has a particular atmosphere in Venice. Magical.

But of course I fear for the city’s future. It’s a clear warning for the dangers of rising sea levels, more uncertain weather and global warming. It’s hard to be optimistic for Venice’s long term future. Though in the short term there are steps that could help, for example getting the much delayed flood prevention scheme up and running, and reducing access to and damage from big cruise ships. It’s likely some very difficult decisions will have to be made about Venice. But for now, anyway, it clings on, albeit increasingly precariously.

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I recently embarked on another reread of JRR Tolkien’s epic fantasy classic The Lord of the Rings. I considered blogging my way through it, but for various reasons, mainly my health situation, I decided against doing that. However I think it still merits a blog post.

It’s been my favourite book for a very, very long time. I first read it back in the early 1980s. At the time I was still using the children’s library in my home town Hawick, and this title was shelved in the “grown ups” section. So a parent borrowed the volumes for me, in turn. I was gripped. A few years later I got my own single volume paperback copy, on a summer holiday day trip to Dundee. It was bought in a tiny gaming shop (RPGs, miniatures and board games) in Exchange Street in the city centre (long since closed). Little did I know that two decades on I’d be living in Dundee myself …

That paperback copy was read lovingly repeatedly over the following decades. I still have it, and it’s one of my most cherished books, albeit in a “well-loved” state by now! But nowadays I generally read fiction on my Kindle, for disability reasons, and have trundled through Lord of the Rings that way several times over recent years.

The book is an epic tale of little people, of various kinds, fighting against adversity. But it’s also a tale of a vanishing rural idyll. And a world of myths and legends, and magic, all vividly imagined by Tolkien in the fantasy world that he created.

As I reread the opening portion, Fellowship of the Ring again, I’m struck by how many things I don’t recall noticing so much before. For example the opening prologue has a surprising amount of spoilers, albeit easy to miss, for what happens later! Likewise I was enchanted by Elvish names for constellations such as Orion and the Pleiades. It very much makes you feel that the book’s Middle Earth is an earlier version of our own world, and that looking up to the sky today you see, by and large, the same view that the hobbits and the elves did that night in The Shire.

Rereading this book is proving to be a delight, as always, and something that I will continue doing for the rest of my life. It never loses its magic for me, and is always a familiar friend to return to.

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I recently read this book, published by the University of Chicago Press, in their Writing, Editing and Publishing series. It’s a compact paperback, 166 pages long.

The book is divided into 28 main chapters, split across the following core sections:

  • Writing in Academe
  • Using Tools that Work
  • Challenging Writing Myths
  • Maintaining Momentum
  • Building Writing Support

Of these I found the sections on tools, challenging writing myths and maintaining momentum most effective. The book’s author is nicely to the point, doesn’t mess about, but gives straightforward, honest advice. There’s much that many academics could benefit from, including making time for writing in a busy academic life, dealing with imposter syndrome, and coping with perfectionism. I also found the book had great advice for handling multiple projects at once, and the generally less often discussed challenge of keeping writing fun, in a context in which it might often seem to become a chore.

On the downside I did personally have big issues with the depiction of humanities scholars, presented as people with only one writing task to focus on, and a relatively easier task as a result than scientists. As an academic scientist turned historian this didn’t fit with my experience. Humanities scholars often juggle multiple writing projects at once too. And, perhaps even more crucially, are often single authors, so must handle all the tasks of academic writing, not shared among a group i.e. all of research, planning, writing, revising, editing, submitting, dealing with peer review, and hopefully proofreading and final publication processes. The challenge can be immense. I don’t think the author of the book grasped that at all. Perhaps she was looking back to more halcyon days.

I also found that it was a shame the book avoided commonly used writing terms like procrastination, which can often be such a problem for many doctoral students. The book does have some good writing tips for postgraduates, but is aimed squarely at later stage academics, who have more challenges fitting writing in alongside their other academic workload. Though the book could be of more benefit to part-time postgraduates than full-timers, who must fit vital writing time in around other commitments, including in some cases full-time jobs. I just think that with a few relatively small tweaks and refocusing the book could have been adjusted to help more postgraduate students as well.

So yes I do have critiques. But generally I came away from it feeling very positive. I don’t think that any academic would use every tip and idea in there. But there are lots of good ones presented. And many ideas challenge oft-held unproductive mindsets. It’s also an easy read, well written, that you can dip in and out of. So yes, thumbs up.

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I recently read the new book by Murray Pittock about Edinburgh in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and thought I’d jot down some notes. I was keen to read it, having studied urban history in my postgraduate taught Masters degree. But I also worked as the research assistant on the Scottish small towns project started by Bob Harris at Dundee, and later involving Charles McKean. Both of whom were successively my history PhD supervisors.

The book considers what made Edinburgh at this time such an ideal breeding ground for Enlightenment ideas. To do this the book examines the nature of Edinburgh society, the myriad of networks and connections within the city, and the wider influences at play, such as European links. A series of chapters focus on specific topics and themes in detail, such as trades and professions, the arts, and the literary aspect of life in the city as seen in bookshops and libraries. Generally these sections of the book worked well, and especially those where the complex intermingling of different parts of society was clearly demonstrated. The huge number of pieces of evidence cited could be overwhelming, but is generally well handled, and used effectively. A rare weaker subsection for me was that on divisions within the Church, which seemed to be more narrative than argumentative, and not adequately tied in to wider Edinburgh society and the core arguments that the book was making. But this was a rare exception in what was, generally, a well-written series of chapters and case studies, which amply demonstrated the complex networks within Edinburgh society well.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter examining demographic and socio-cultural aspects of Edinburgh life at this time. This relied to a large extent on incomplete data, especially for the seventeenth century. Fortunately a number of key sources were well utilised, and this chapter laid essential groundwork for all those that followed. Likewise I was constantly struck by how many connections the book highlighted between Edinburgh and the Netherlands, including in trade, education and the arts. I hadn’t realised that these links were so strong at this time, and the book demonstrated this very effectively.

Happily I also greatly enjoyed the chapter about print and reading culture, with its astute presentation of the state of newspapers, bookshops and libraries in Edinburgh. This was a mix of detailed examples – for example Allan Ramsay – and more numerous pieces of evidence, such as an insightful discussion of Edinburgh bookselling as a whole. I also appreciated, given that this fell within my PhD speciality, that this chapter of the book was reassuringly well grounded on prior research and academic writings.

I do have some other critiques though. Firstly for a book incorporating modern Smart City theory so prominently, including in its title and the publisher’s marketing and advertising, I would have preferred a more straightforward explanation of what Smart City theory is, and, indeed, what constitutes a Smart City. There is some coverage of this in the opening chapter, but not to the point enough for me; a pity in a chapter otherwise very good at introducing key concepts to the reader, such as theories of and approaches to the Enlightenment and relevant wider Scottish history. I wonder if the Smart City emphasis was added later in the publication process, but given the title of the book it would have been good to see it addressed more directly at the start.

The other major omission for me is the lack of any concluding chapter. In the print culture chapter the very last paragraph does act as an overall conclusion of a sort. But it’s extremely short, and it would have been nice to allow more space for reflection and a summary of the factors that made Edinburgh at this time such a hotspot for fermenting Enlightenment ideas. A section briefly addresses this in the opening chapter, but it was a shame not to see the threads of the arguments drawn together at the end of the book. Also some of these ideas have been theorised before, for example I well remember my supervisor Charles McKean covering many similar arguments in our urban history seminars nearly twenty years ago. But it could have been usefully summarised here, along with a clear statement of the book’s new contributions to the academic debate.

Those are downsides, but in other respects I would recommend this book highly to readers, and think that it makes an extremely valuable contribution to Scottish history in this period, and urban and Enlightenment history more generally. I would also like to praise how readable it is, very much a page turner. I found it frequently highly compelling, and dripping with interesting snippets. Also I would like to praise the decision to initially publish the book as a low-cost paperback alongside a more costly hardback version. This is still relatively unusual for an academic history book, and makes the book affordable for a wider audience, as it deserves to be.

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