My favourite haunt at work is directly in front of the modest shelves to which unneeded books are consigned. A sort of literary service station on the heavily trodden route to the office kitchen, these are perpetually sway-backed under the weight of volumes donated by munificent publishers and discarded by New Scientist’s culture desk.
All literary life is there: glossy TV tie-ins reluctantly slum it alongside dour academic tracts, which in turn sneer down at cranky pamphlets. But much of the shelf space is occupied by doggedly single-minded popular reads: The Horse: A Biography of Our Noble Companion; Red: The Natural History of the Redhead; Coastlines: The Story of Our Shore. This monomaniacal subject matter is often presented with megalomaniacal ambition: consider Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. As a bibliophile, editor of New Scientist and a judge of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize, I have to wonder: what purpose do such books serve?
The genesis of the noun book can be traced to Mark Kurlansky’s 1997 blockbuster, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. Emboldened by its success, publishers seem to have set out to produce a book expounding the specific import of each and every object in the known