Judging a Wordnerd by his Covers: Part I

by Chris Hancock

A recent bit of redecorating in my house meant that bookshelves had to be dismantled, with all the books getting jumbled in the process. In trying to impose some sense of order on this higgledy-piggledy mess (and, incidentally, if there’s a better reduplicative word than “higgledy-piggledy” I’d like to hear about it) I found myself lingering over some books more than others. Some I could instantly return to their rightful place without a moment’s thought; others I couldn’t repatriate without opening them and flicking through, reading a paragraph here and there… maybe just smelling the musty paper. Old friends. I’d like you to meet ten of them…

1. Araucaria: The Chambers Book of Araucaria Crosswords Volume I

Regular readers will know that I am a devotee of cryptic crosswords. You can read of my early experiences with this, the greatest puzzle form ever devised, here. In the Guardian newspaper, the various crossword setters have pseudonyms. My favourite setter is Araucaria, the name taken by John Galbraith Graham. Araucaria is probably as close to being my personal hero as anyone could be. Now in his 90s, he still contributes puzzles to the Guardian (having done so since 1958) – puzzles with humour, wit and erudition. He is also the master of special variants. Among these are themed puzzles – where a large number of the solutions have a common link, or where all the letters around the perimeter of the puzzle form a famous quotation or the name of a book and its author. His greatest invention is probably the Alphabetical Jigsaw – where there is one solution starting with each letter of the alphabet. There is no indication where in the grid the answers should be placed; the solver must fit them in where they will go. An example of one can be found here . The sense of achievement on completing one of these puzzles, combining with a respect for the brilliant mind that could devise it, creates a marvellous feeling.

2. Bryson, Bill: A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson can bring his seemingly-effortless writing style to bear on almost any subject, and science is no exception to that rule. Here Bryson, who was appointed Chancellor of the University of Durham (only a few miles from my home), covers a multitude of scientific topics: the big bang, relativity, evolution, etc. bringing to life the characters who advanced our knowledge, and explaining the concepts as if we were just chatting to him in a cosy English pub. OK, cards on the table time – this is going to sound unbearably hubristic, but when I’m writing these articles I have in mind the ability of Bryson to convey information with a light touch, combined with the humour and vocabulary of the writer of a book I feature in Part II. I think you’ll guess which one. How’s that for keeping you on tenterhooks?

3. Chambers: English Twentieth Century Dictionary

This feels like cheating, but how could I leave my lifelong companion out of the list? Those who’ve dipped into my other writings will know the story; new readers can catch up here.

4. Courant, Richard: Differential and Integral Calculus, Volume I

Many years ago, having secured a place to read Mathematics and Physics at university, I arrived on campus all eager to snap up the recommended texts. Top of the list was “Courant” – spoken of in such reverential tones that it might have been Merlin’s book of spells. Imagine my delight in finding the very book, in hardback, with dust jacket. I left the shop clutching my prize. Success in my course was now a formality.

Of course, it didn’t turn out like that. University-level mathematics is hard; the distractions of living away from home were many (though largely unsuccessful in one regard, if that’s what you’re thinking). And as I flicked through Courant for some magic, it was the words that captivated me – the Second Mean Value Theorem, Power Series, the Brachistochrone Problem… – whilst the formulae just swam and blurred before my eyes.

In the end I scraped through with a third-rate degree – and, after that initial flush of enthusiasm, Courant had stayed unopened for the majority of my three years, the dust jacket proving its worth. That said, I couldn’t bear to sell it after I had no further use for it (though, it must be said, that’s true of all the books I’ve ever owned).

5. Dexter, Colin: Last Bus to Woodstock

[Author’s Post-Publication Note: I should perhaps have mentioned that this novel explores some adult themes]

I’ve selected this, the first Inspector Morse novel, but I would have had no problem in recommending any of the series. Dexter, as great a cryptic crossword enthusiast as his fictional creation (and me, of course), raises the detective fiction genre to greater heights with carefully-constructed clever plotting, but mostly in the characters of Morse and his faithful sidekick, Sergeant Lewis. The interplay between the cerebral Morse and the artisan Lewis is brilliantly crafted. Dexter often punctures Morse’s pomposity by letting Lewis make the vital breakthrough, or where Morse picks up on a grammatical error by Lewis only for Lewis to catch Morse committing a similar solecism. Is it possible to solve the whodunit before Morse? I can’t, but it really doesn’t matter. For me, it’s not the destination that matters but the journey.

[Ed’s note: We leave our hero here, engrossed in his murder mystery. If you’re enjoying this journey through Chris’ shelves as much as I am, come back on Friday for Part II of the guided tour.]

covers part 1

Chris Hancock

About Chris Hancock

Chris Hancock (@cjhancock) is an IT consultant and dictionary enthusiast in the UK. He’s worked in Engineering and Computing since leaving University, all the time hoping that the post of Crossword Editor for “The Guardian” will come up. It hasn’t. Yet.


111 Responses to “Judging a Wordnerd by his Covers: Part I”

  1. I can’t wait for part II! Thank you!

  2. I am also a Araucaria fan, had no idea there were books! *rushes out to buy*

    • The man is a genius, Louise. I have four of his books, published by Chambers – all puzzles that haven’t appeared in the Guardian or anywhere else as far as I’m aware. All displaying brilliant inventiveness.

  3. You have gorgeous friends!! So nice to hear about people’s treasures and not blah blah newest release all the time.

  4. Oh yes, I know that feeling all too well! It’s my complete works of Shakespeare that get me every time!

  5. Never thought of books as friends, that’s a lovely idea. You have opened my eyes.

  6. You make me want to buy them all.

  7. Do I sound like too much of a fanboy if I say I want to own all the books which inspire you, in the hopes it might improve my own drivel?

  8. You’ve put a smile on my face as usual!

  9. What diverse tastes! 6-10 are going to be Harry Potter, 50 Shades, Pride and Prejudice, the Koran, and War and Peace aren’t they, just to keep us guessing about you…

  10. So you really read mathematics – but now you don’t anymore?

    • I did, Osten, and now earn my living as a computer programmer. But that’s more about thinking logically than requiring mathematical training. I still enjoy reading mathematical books in the “popular science” category, but nothing as tough as Courant any more.

  11. Now I’m wondering which of my titles I’d linger over. Hhmmmm…

  12. You have such affinity for words. Blows me away.

  13. Maths AND words! Delicious!

  14. Oh what a treasure trove!

  15. Dear Chris

    Please keep this glorious site going forever and ever amen.


  16. I love your sincerity, and yes, you do write like Bryson!

  17. You need to put a book out for us to linger over :-)

  18. Excuse me, I have some books to go love.

  19. Oh yes, a good book will draw you in every time, and own part of your soul.

  20. The language of maths has a music all its own.

  21. I’m off to buy number five AT ONCE!

  22. I thoroughly enjoyed this, and lingered over your ‘back catalogue’. Superb.

    • Oh, wow, that’s very kind of you, Oscar. You’ll see I employ the scatter-gun approach – if I cover a wide enough range of vaguely word-related topics, something will hit home :-)

  23. What a thoroughly refreshing read! Subscribed :-)

  24. Why hello new favourite writer :-) and new favourite site :-)

  25. Looooove Bill Bryson. Particularly his wordnerd books, of course!

  26. I’m judging: and forming a very favourable opinion so far!!

  27. Whenever I read an article I become more in awe of you.

  28. Fab! Food for thought.

  29. Oh how wonderful! Thanks for the introductions :-)

  30. Such an array – no wonder your brain is so cool.

  31. Not sure I’d read all these books, but I’d read anything you cared to write about them :-)

  32. Friday!! You’re making us wait till Friday? Cruel, cruel wordnerd :)

  33. Great idea! Thank you for sharing with us.

  34. Well, you can’t help but respect a man who says ‘solecism’. Another great job, young man.

  35. I always judge people by their bookshelves, isn’t that what they’re FOR? And the people who have no books…run, run for your life.

  36. I too did battle with Courant, and failed. Mine props up my desk now.

  37. Things you make me want to do: take up cryptic crosswords, buy these books, read everything you’ve written, visit this site daily, tell you how remarkable you are.

  38. So insightful. Thanks.

  39. I don’t want to leave our hero here! I want more! Come on hero, please…

  40. How wonderful!

  41. What a lovely article – and I read lots of the other great ones too. You’re a superb writer.

  42. This site is EPIC!

  43. You’re a word magician!

  44. I recognise some of your friends 😀

  45. Books are better friends than people, I often find.

  46. Trying to imagine who else you aspire to write like. Terry Pratchett? You have the insight, and wit…Oscar Wilde?

    • Both splendid writers, Richard. You’ll just have to wait until Friday to find out. And then you’ll probably think “Nope, I can’t see it”. But he/she (see? – not even gender clues!) is certainly the novelist I admire the most.

  47. You are able to pack so much into a compact suitcase, nostalgia, warmth, humour, insight…and it doesn’t feel cramped!

  48. Trackbacks

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