Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman by Minoo Dinshaw review – portrait of a great mind

An immense biography of a brilliant historian from the golden age of scholarship

An “alarmingly literate child” by the age of eight, the brilliant Byzantinist Steven Runciman discovered his love of history at Eton (which he loathed) during the first world war. At Cambridge (which he loved) he met Cecil Beaton, whose portrait of Runciman with his pet parakeet, Benedict, is on the book’s cover. Later he taught Guy Burgess at Cambridge. The fastidious Runciman observed that Burgess’s personal hygiene left much to be desired: he often had to “send him away to clean his fingernails”. From the 1930s, Runciman began writing the wide-ranging historical studies for which he is renowned, including a monumental trilogy on the Crusades (1951-54) and The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (1965), which became a bestseller. He was a “playfully elusive figure”, a complex character who could be sparklingly witty yet disliked public speaking and ...

The Bestseller Code review – how to spot the next Harry Potter

This thought-provoking study by by Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jocker identifies the anatomy of a blockbuster novelSome 55,000 new novels are published each year as well as countless self-published ebooks. Only a fraction become bestsellers: Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers estimate less than half a percent make it on to the New York Times bestseller list. Publishers find it hard to spot these literary black swans. Rowling was turned down by 12 editors and John Grisham by 16. Lisbeth Salander was dismissed by editors as “a bit moody and aggressive for a female lead”. Archer and Jockers think publishers need a little scientific help. A former publishing professional and an academic working in the new field of digital humanities, they spent five years analysing bestsellers and designing a computer model – a “bestsellerometer” –to identify “blockbuster DNA” in manuscripts. It turned out to be remarkably successful: “Eighty to ...

The Bestseller Code review – how to spot the next Harry Potter

This thought-provoking study by by Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jocker identifies the anatomy of a blockbuster novelSome 55,000 new novels are published each year as well as countless self-published ebooks. Only a fraction become bestsellers: Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers estimate less than half a percent make it on to the New York Times bestseller list. Publishers find it hard to spot these literary black swans. Rowling was turned down by 12 editors and John Grisham by 16. Lisbeth Salander was dismissed by editors as “a bit moody and aggressive for a female lead”. Archer and Jockers think publishers need a little scientific help. A former publishing professional and an academic working in the new field of digital humanities, they spent five years analysing bestsellers and designing a computer model – a “bestsellerometer” –to identify “blockbuster DNA” in manuscripts. It turned out to be remarkably successful: “Eighty to ...

The Zoo: The Wild and Wonderful Tale of the Founding of London Zoo by Isobel Charman – review

An impressive, novelistic retelling of the first 25 years of ‘the first zoo in history’The brainchild of statesman Sir Stamford Raffles, the Zoological Society of London was to be “a collection of living animals such as never yet existed in ancient or modern times”. Dedicated to scientific research rather than mere public spectacle, it was initially dismissed by the press as the “Noah’s Ark Society”. But from day one in 1828 it became immensely popular, drawing 100,000 visitors in its first year to Regent’s Park, and 600,000 by mid-century. By then it was popularly known as the Zoo, or, as Isobel Charman puts it, “the first ‘zoo’ in history”. Her book focuses on its first 25 years and is a vivid novelistic retelling from the viewpoints of key figures, from its founder and his wife to Charles Spooner, the vet struggling to keep the exotic animals alive, and Charles ...

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil review – trouble with algorithms

This powerful study, subtitled How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, exposes the bias in predictive modelling As a child, mathematics was Cathy O’Neil’s passion: “math provided a neat refuge from the messiness of the real world”. After a stint in academia she began working for a hedge fund (“the smuggest of the players on Wall Street”) just before the 2008 crash. That’s when she recognised the danger posed by mathematical models or, as she neatly terms them in this fascinating book, Weapons of Math Destruction. Her main point is that predictive models are never neutral but reflect the goals and ideology of those who create them. They also tend to load the dice against poor people, reinforcing inequality in society. From calculating university rankings or credit ratings and processing job applications, to deciding what advertising you see online or what stories appear in your Facebook news feed, algorithms ...

Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value by Michael Thompson review – what gives things their worth?

A witty and wide-ranging study of the value of items from status symbol to rubbish, from being worthless to becoming valuable againThis updated edition of the classic 1979 study contains two new chapters, contextualising and extending Thompson’s groundbreaking theoretical work into the idea that value is not a fixed characteristic of things, but changeable. Thompson divides everything from Bakelite ashtrays to houses into three categories: transient (“here today, gone tomorrow”), durable (“a joy forever”) and rubbish. After you buy something, its value declines until it reaches zero: rubbish. But then, through a mysterious cultural alchemy, some things move from being worthless to valuable. Thanks to “some creative, upwardly mobile individual” they are raised up from the bin and designated “components of Our Glorious Heritage”. Rubbish is transformed into gold. Drawing examples from such diverse fields as Stevengraphs (Victorian woven silk pictures), ceremonial pig-giving in New Guinea and his experiences ...

Britain’s Europe by Brendan Simms review – why Brexit is neither inevitable nor an accident

This timely and important study illuminates the 1,000-year-old relationship between Britain and continental EuropeIn this wide-ranging and thoughtful history of Britain’s relationship with continental Europe, Brendan Simms argues that Brexit is “neither inevitable nor an accident”. It was Churchill who suggested that Europe was “where the weather came from”. Across a thousand years of our history, from the pan-European “bonds of Christendom” and the growth of an English identity during the Viking invasions, to the 19th century, when British liberalism was seen as a bulwark against autocratic aggression, events in Europe have played a profound role in shaping the destiny of first England and then Britain. What we are today is the result of experiences shared across the continent, from the Reformation to the industrial revolution. But as Simms notes: “If Europe made Britain, then Britain also made Europe.” It is a symbiotic relationship and he writes that Europe ...