I love reading and will happily devour almost anything, so this month’s topic is a doddle for me. Originally I intended to talk about fiction, and some of my favourite authors including Tolkien, Du Maurier, Gale, and Renault. But then I realised that even though they’re not necessarily “Romance” with a capital R, most of them still contain romantic elements. Heck, there’s even a wedding in Lord of the Rings! So I thought I’d go completely off-piste and list my favourite non-fiction books instead.
Top banana for me is Alfred Wainwright’s famous series of guide books to the fells (mountains) of the English Lake District. My Dad had the complete set when I was a small child and I loved poring over the maps, diagrams and beautiful sketches of the views from the tops of the fells. Nowadays I still enjoy that, but I also love reading the perfectly handwritten notes about the many paths up to the 214 separate summits Wainwright identified. He was possessed of a dry, Northern sense of humour which often shines out amongst the instructions to ‛turn right by the stile’ or ‛follow the wall for a quarter of a mile’; many of his more amusing additions are about the region’s irrepressible sheep. I love all the books, but if I had to pick a favourite it would be The Outlying Fells of Lakeland, partly because most of the summits it includes are lower and easier for a mountaineering duffer like me to reach, and partly because it has a cute cartoon of talking sheep (above, pic credit wainwright.org.uk).
Second on the list is another of Dad’s favourites – the Buildings of England series by Nikolaus Pevsner. The series is divided into volumes, one for each county, listing the most important, interesting, historic or picturesque buildings alphabetically by town. Churches, cathedrals, theatres, cinemas, stately homes, suburban villas: each building’s architectural and historical features are described in detail, and there are photos of some of them. It doesn’t sound very interesting but is actually fascinating, especially for areas of the country I’m familiar with, where I can pick out buildings I know well and see why they’re thought worthy of note. Current favourite in the series is Cumbria (where I live), which is still a very rural area but has some incredibly old towns, several dating back to Roman times, with wonderful old buildings to match. In Kendal, for instance, the ‛new’ castle dates from the twelfth century and the remains of an even older castle are still hidden away if you know where to look. The books are a great way to find interesting places to visit and/or walk round, or just a source of endless fascinating detail for an architectural nerd like me!
In third place it’s a tie between Land of Beauty and Splendour, a huge coffee table volume about the scenery of South Africa’s national parks, and Nancy Mitford’s highly entertaining examination of the Louis 14th of France’s court at Versailles, The Sun King. The former is gorgeous to look at, with pages of photos of mountains, waterfalls and endless brilliant oceans of wildflowers. The latter contains a wealth of sometimes surprisingly salacious tittle-tattle about court life alongside the well-researched religious, genealogical and military history – and Ms Mitford wasn’t afraid of describing some of the more flamboyant bi and gay personalities like Louis’s younger brother Philippe (“Monsieur”), brought to memorable life by Alexander Vlahos in the TV series Versailles.
Now you’ve seen my favourites, why not check out some of the other webring members?