The story of an invention that dramatically changed the way wars are fought is the highlight of this month’s new titles.
To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Railway
By Christian Wolmar, £22.00, ISBN 978-0857890375
I have never had a chance to travel the full 9,288km length of the Trans-Siberian Railway - the longest railway on the planet covering almost the whole of Eurasia - but have repeatedly travelled its shorter stretches. Even these two- or three-day journeys, as opposed to the entire week needed to cover the whole distance, were enough to grasp its sheer scope and importance however.
Curiously, a comprehensive history of the Transsib (as it is habitually abbreviated in Russian) did not exist in the USSR, and one had to rely largely on pre-1917 sources. From the impressive list of reference sources in the end of Christian Wolmar’s book, it is obvious that such shortage did not affect the English-language research material.
Indeed, that distant and mysterious Russian railroad spanning over two continents, has always had a special appeal for the British traveller. John Foster Fraser, a Scottish writer and explorer, who travelled to the east of Moscow in 1901, was so impressed with the railway’s length that he referred to his journey as crossing “the Russian Canada”. He was also taken with warm and plentiful station buffets, of which he visited plenty on his way.
Wolmar’s history of the Transsib is the most detailed work on the subject published so far. Like his other railway history books, it is brimming with facts, figures and names while always remaining a very good read.
The author takes the reader on a fascinating metaphorical ‘train ride’ across the legendary railroad’s tempestuous history. Of course, this begins in the first years of its construction when its heroic engineers had to overcome a number of natural and technological obstacles. Then we trundle through the Russian-Japanese War of 1904, Stalin’s purges when it was used to transport prisoners to Gulag labour camps, and so on and so forth - right to the present time, when the Transsib finally, after 110 years of its existence, “ is beginning to fulfill its potential” and “is capable of transporting 100 million tons of freight a year”.
E&T readers will be pleased to know that in the concluding chapter of his work Wolmar claims that one of the main distinctive features of the world’s longest railway is “the amazing engineering that went into building it”.
Oxford University Press
The Origin of Ideas: Blending, Creativity, and the Human Spark
By Mark Turner, $29.95, ISBN 978 0 19 998882 2
Beginning with Arthur Koestler’s ‘The Act of Creation’, published in 1964, at least a dozen psychologists, mainly American, have offered theories to account for our species’ unique inventiveness. None has achieved wide acceptance.
In 2002, cognitive scientist Mark Turner proposed the notion of ‘conceptual blending’ in ‘The Way We Think’, a book for the general reader written with Gilles Fauconnier. In ‘The Origin of Ideas’, Turner amplifies the theory more academically with some intriguing examples drawn from the entire time span of human creativity, starting with Palaeolithic tools and art and including everything from advanced technology to Walt Disney’s version of Winnie the Pooh.
“I think of the human brain as constantly trying to blend different things, unconsciously,” Turner writes. “Most of these attempts fail, I imagine, almost immediately, because no good blend arises, or if it does arise, it attaches to no good purpose, and so is allowed to pop, like a transitory bubble.”
Often, he says, creative blends arise from apparently incompatible combinations - as symbolised by Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden at the suggestion of the crafty serpent. Nevertheless, “Thanks to blending, we do not need to hold an entire mental web active all at the same time.”
Unfortunately, as Turner admits in his final chapter, current brain-imaging technology comes nowhere near allowing us to detect such blending ‘in the act’. Functional MRI imaging, for example, is a measure of blood flow, not neuronal activity, and certainly not of conceptual integration. For now, Turner’s theory must remain - like Koestler’s ‘bisociation’ of elements - largely untested. Thus far, it seems too vast a catch-all to explain the origin of ideas. “Blending blends blends”, runs one sentence, without apparent irony. Moreover, blending says nothing useful about exceptional creativity, that is, genius. Perhaps this limitation is inevitable, given that creativity is so protean a phenomenon.
Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn
By Nick Hunt, £10.99, ISBN 978-1857886177
There’s a certain sadness about most ‘following-in-the-footsteps’ travelogues - a recent trend that is threatening to become a new full-scale literary genre. Sadness and repetitiveness, for it is hard to avoid excessive, at times over-excessive, quoting from the original.
Having turned the last page of ‘Walking the Woods and the Water’, I am pleased to say that none of the above applies to this delightful, balanced and extremely well-written book.
Hunt does try to retrace the 18-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps across 1933 Europe - from Holland to Constantinopole - as much as he can, but he seldom resorts to direct quotes from the classic preferring to convey the latter’s experiences descriptively, often by overlaying them with his own attitudes and observations.
Hunt’s narrative therefore, while carrying an inevitable retro touch and a lot of affection for his literary mentor (to whom he often refers as “Paddy” - a token not of familiarity, but of warmth), is never self-effacing. Nor it is in any way self-promotional.
Fans of Patrick Leigh Fermor among E&T readers (I am sure there are many) will be attracted to Hunt’s powerful descriptions of Europe’s altered and ever-changing industrial landscape: roads, factories, power stations and means of transport - particularly as he is walking through Germany and the Ruhr area.
In short, an impressive and timely effort. A worthy literary tribute to a classic of British travel writing.