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Jenny Diski: Google’s Ngram Viewer, 20 January 2011

... Some years ago Stephen King announced that he would put his new book online before publication, for anyone to read freely. His publishers were spitting dollar signs and the fans delighted. In my memory he did as he said, and put the entire book on his website, but the 100,000-or-so words of the manuscript, though all there, were in alphabetical order ...

Against the Pussyfoots

Steven Shapin: George Saintsbury, 10 September 2009

Notes on a Cellar-Book 
by George Saintsbury, edited by Thomas Pinney.
California, 348 pp., £20.95, October 2008, 978 0 520 25352 0
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... In late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, he was the supreme arbiter of literary taste, the ‘king of critics’. He had established a reputation as an editor, reviewer and political journalist by the mid-1870s, before becoming regius professor of rhetoric and English literature at Edinburgh from 1895 to 1915. Yet even in the 1890s, rival critics thought ...

Bare Bones

Steven Shapin: Rhinoceros v. Megatherium, 8 March 2018

The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium: An Essay in Natural History 
by Juan Pimentel, translated by Peter Mason.
Harvard, 356 pp., £21.95, January 2017, 978 0 674 73712 9
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... the Portuguese colonial governor; it was sent along with a chest-full of precious baubles to the king of Portugal. As with many gifts, there was a diffuse expectation of reciprocity – in this case, the hope that the gesture might forestall a disastrous war with the European power. The rhino was loaded in chains onto a Portuguese ship in Goa and delivered ...

One Peculiar Nut

Steven Shapin: The Life of René Descartes, 23 January 2003

Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes 
by Richard A. Watson.
Godine, 375 pp., £22, April 2002, 1 56792 184 1
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... biography: there are entries for ‘Shut up, only time RD had the sense to’; ‘Up yours to the king’; ‘Pop a pill’; ‘Health nut, RD’; ‘Broke, RD flat’; and ‘Screw’ (which is an awful tease in this context, since it turns out to be only the Archimedean variety). Speculating about his reasons for accepting Christina’s invitation to ...

Milk and Lemon

Steven Shapin: The Excesses of Richard Feynman, 7 July 2005

Don’t You Have Time to Think? The Letters of Richard Feynman 
edited by Michelle Feynman.
Allen Lane, 486 pp., £20, June 2005, 0 7139 9847 4
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... about whether he’d have to walk backwards down the steps after receiving his prize from the King of Sweden (about which he was seriously nervous); he traded bonhomous badinage with girlfriends from the distant past; he cheerfully sent the photographs and supplied the autographs; he commended the amateur physicists for their bold ...

At the Amsterdam

Steven Shapin: A Wakefull and Civill Drink, 20 April 2006

The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffee House 
by Brian Cowan.
Yale, 364 pp., £25, January 2006, 0 300 10666 1
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Coffee House: A Cultural History 
by Markman Ellis.
Phoenix, 304 pp., £8.99, November 2005, 0 7538 1898 1
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... if sedition were being brewed on their premises. This was a significant threat: shortly after the king backed down from his banning order, several proprietors were arrested for continuing to permit ‘seditious discourses, and spreading false and seditious news’. Until the end of Charles II’s reign, and beyond, London’s coffee houses continued to be ...

Sailing Scientist

Steven Shapin: Edmund Halley, 2 July 1998

Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas 
by Alan Cook.
Oxford, 540 pp., £29.50, December 1997, 0 19 850031 9
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... its publication out of his own pocket, and who prepared a précis for personal presentation to the King – one of the earliest scientific soundbites. ‘But for him, in all human probability’, wrote Augustus de Morgan in the mid-19th century, the Principia ‘would not have been thought of, nor when thought of written, nor when written printed’. Halley ...

Foursomes and so on

Steven Mithen: Prehistory of Inequality, 11 April 2013

The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire 
by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus.
Harvard, 631 pp., £29.95, May 2012, 978 0 674 06469 0
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... of time invisible to archaeologists – to go from being the illegitimate son of a minor chief to king of the Zulu. He was a brilliant military strategist and brutally defeated his enemies, turning thirty chiefly societies into the provinces of a single kingdom. (He was also a mummy’s boy: when his mother died in 1827 he ordered that for one year no crops ...

Why did we start farming?

Steven Mithen: Hunter-Gatherers Were Right, 30 November 2017

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States 
by James C. Scott.
Yale, 336 pp., £20, September 2017, 978 0 300 18291 0
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... centralised production of crafts such as ceramics and textiles; social hierarchies topped by a king; and – surely the key index of human ‘progress’ – tax collectors. But why did it take so long – about four thousand years – for the city-states to appear? The reason is probably the disease, pestilence and economic fragility of those Neolithic ...

Close Cozenage

David Wootton, 23 May 1996

Astrology and the 17th-Century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars 
by Ann Geneva.
Manchester, 298 pp., £40, June 1995, 0 7190 4154 6
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... he shaped the course of events. At the Restoration he had to counter the charge that the day the King was executed was chosen to conform to his prognostication. Through the key years of the Civil War he had forecast Parliamentary victory and royal defeat (he predicted victory at Naseby, the key battle of the war), and Royalists complained that his almanacs ...

You know who

Jasper Rees, 4 August 1994

Jim Henson – The Works: The Art, the Magic, the Imagination 
by Christopher Finch.
Aurum, 251 pp., £20, April 1994, 1 85410 296 6
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... the height of the Muppets’ fame, the frame of reference is impressive: Miss Piggy as Fay Wray in King Kong, Miss Piggy as the Forces’ sweetheart and, brilliantly, Miss Piggy as Annie Hall, with Kermit as Woody. The calendar idea led to books, including Miss Piggy’s Art Masterpieces from the Kermitage Collection, in which Miss Piggy modelled for ...

The Sultan and I

Anthony Howard, 1 June 1989

By God’s Will: A Portrait of the Sultan of Brunei 
by Lord Chalfont.
Weidenfeld, 200 pp., £14.95, May 1989, 0 297 79628 3
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The Richest Man in the World: The Sultan of Brunei 
by James Bartholomew.
Viking, 199 pp., £12.95, April 1989, 0 670 82152 7
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... would have it, recently been withdrawn by its second publishers: written by an American lawyer, Steven Martindale, and appropriately entitled By Hook or by Crook, it is said to be not without unconscious humour. But for a period, anyway, there was little inclination on Lonrho’s part to question the guru’s credentials; and, for twelve months or more ...


John Bayley, 17 September 1987

Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry 
edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Helen Deese.
Cambridge, 377 pp., £17.50, June 1987, 0 571 14979 0
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Collected Prose 
by Robert Lowell, edited and introduced by Robert Giroux.
Faber, 269 pp., £27.50, February 1987, 0 521 30872 0
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... scribble across the simple mystery of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. Vermeer is the reverse of a king; his art the very opposite of Lowell’s credo that ‘the artist’s existence becomes his art.’ Vermeer’s pictures are endlessly mysterious and commonplace precisely because the artist is not in them, has been able so completely to exclude himself. And ...

Mythic Elements

Stephen Bann, 30 December 1982

Queen of Stones 
by Emma Tennant.
Cape, 160 pp., £6.95, November 1982, 0 224 02601 1
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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial 
by William Kotzwinkle, based on a screenplay by Melissa Mathison.
Arthur Barker, 246 pp., £6.95, November 1982, 0 213 16848 0
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Tales of Afghanistan 
by Amina Shah.
Octagon Press, 128 pp., £6.50, November 1982, 0 900860 94 4
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The Masque of St Eadmundsburg 
by Humphrey Morrison.
Blond and Briggs, 228 pp., £7.95, October 1982, 0 85634 127 4
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A Villa in France 
by J.I.M. Stewart.
Gollancz, 206 pp., £6.95, October 1982, 0 575 03103 4
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Collected Stories: Vol. III 
by Sean O’Faolain.
Constable, 422 pp., £9.95, November 1982, 0 09 463920 5
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Work Suspended and Other Stories 
by Evelyn Waugh.
Penguin, 318 pp., £2.75, November 1982, 0 14 006518 0
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... a novel at all – more in the line of a ‘novelisation’ (Newsweek again) of the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s colossally successful film. Michelangelo’s renowned image of God making finger contact with Adam (known to viewers of London Weekend Television through the surrogate emblem of Melvyn Bragg conducting the live electricity of the Arts) has ...


Alan Ryan, 9 November 1989

Burke and the Fall of Language: The French Revolution as Linguistic Event 
by Steven Blakemore.
University Press of New England, 115 pp., £10, April 1989, 0 87451 452 5
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The Impact of the French Revolution on European Consciousness 
edited by H.T. Mason and William Doyle.
Sutton, 205 pp., £17.95, June 1989, 0 86299 483 7
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The French Revolution and the Enlightenment in England 1789-1832 
by Seamus Deane.
Harvard, 212 pp., £19.95, November 1988, 0 674 32240 1
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... were redefined and renamed, the names of the days and the months were changed, while the King of France was first renamed ‘the King of the French’ and finally ‘Citizen Capet’. It was a literary event in another sense, too. Controversialists on every side tried self-consciously to attain a rhetorical pitch ...

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