Darwin in Scotland, by DF Derry. Whittles, 192pp, £18.99 ***
This begins with an account of Charles Darwin’s time at Edinburgh University. His alma mater equipped him well, but do we have any real reason to imagine things would have been so different if he’d studied at Oxford, Cambridge or London? Those places hadn’t just experienced the Enlightenment, of course – Derry gives an interesting if unexceptional account of its achievements in science and culture. If no single insight can be seen as inspirational, did some crucial bit of can-do spirit rub off on Darwin? Derry’s too rigorous a scientist to chance his arm. Faced with this inconclusive conclusion just a chapter in, the book must evolve, becoming a general assessment of the man and his legacy. His expert witnesses do little more than give us their customary spiels. Darwin’s a sound chap, says Noam Chomsky, but had nothing to say about language; “intelligent design” is stupid, says Daniel C Dennett. Interesting yet underwhelming.
The Kings of Alba, by Alasdair Ross. John Donald, 240pp, £20 ****
Its start date a round 1000, this book closes with the death of Alexander I in 1224, a period of Scottish history for which the word “Scottish” has to appear in inverted commas. But if it’s been hard to see a Scotland in what wasn’t much more than a gaggle of squabbling, jostling kingdoms, the problem goes much deeper, Ross explains. Starting his study with a careful consideration of the ways in which land was measured, divided and held at the most local level, he shows how this helped to determine the size and shape of the “building blocks” which went to make up the emerging realm of Alba and whose organisation enabled it to grow in economic performance and political power. Colourful warlords, murderous feuds, dynastic rivalries: all have their place in a fascinating history.
Cinema edited by Philip Kemp. Thames & Hudson, 576pp, £19.95 ****
Creating icons, moulding emotions, shaping attitudes, breaking taboos: the movies have helped to make us what we are. In this sumptuously illustrated history, the focus is on the films – on key masterpieces, important genres and influential schools. More stars than there are in heaven; more directors than you can shake a stick at; all this, a technical glossary and timelines too.