Judging a Wordnerd by his Covers: Part II

by Chris Hancock

Scene: A library. From behind, we see a debonair man in a silk smoking jacket running his finger along a shelf of books. He pauses, draws one particular volume from the shelf and opens it. As he flicks through the pages a smile of familiarity plays upon his lips. He turns and we see it is Chris Hancock. He looks to camera:

Oh, hello there. Welcome to the second part of my selection of favourite books from my personal library. You can read the first part here. If you’re already up to speed with that, read on…

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6. Grahame, Kenneth: The Wind in the Willows

I’m hoping this is a book that needs no introduction. Grahame’s chronicling of the adventures of Mole, Ratty, the Badger and Toad is timeless. Sometimes gloriously sleepy – “simply messing about in boats”; other times breathtakingly fast-paced – Toad’s adventures with motor cars and locomotives (I’m trying not to give away any plot points here). It ticks all the boxes as a rattling good yarn with twists and turns, humour and pathos, a thrilling finale – and Grahame even manages to cram a nostalgic Christmas episode in for good measure. I’d say it’s the perfect book to read aloud to children, pausing only to let them see the marvellous E. H. Shepard line drawings (apologies to other illustrious illustrators, but you must get a Shepard version). If you’d rather be read to, you could do a lot worse than purchase the fantastic “BBC Collection” audio version, voiced with evident relish by Alan Bennett.

7. Guinness: The British Book of Hit Singles

A birthday present from a friend at university, this book has been so well-thumbed that the spine has broken and pages spill out every time I open it. Of course, I don’t open it much anymore. But in the pre-internet age (oh yes, young reader, there was one) this was a vade mecum for a pop music-obsessed fact fanatic such as I. Who had a hit with that? In which year? What else did they do? How many hits did they have? It was all to be found within the pages of this book. And a section at the back listed various records (in the non-vinyl sense) and curiosities: most weeks at number one, one-hit wonders, etc. Did you know that, in the UK, Nat ‘King’ Cole had 28 chart hits but never reached Number 1? Well I never…

8. Harbin: Robert: Origami 2 – The Art of Paper-Folding

There is a type of child who seems to be drawn to certain pointless-but-showy activities: juggling, magic involving everyday objects – string, playing cards, coins, that sort of thing. Reader, I was that type of child (and some might say I still am). To that list – my “real” CV rather than all that boring work-related stuff – can be added origami.

Harbin, a successful stage and TV magician, presented a TV series on origami. In it, he produced paper models in front of the camera in real-time. And yes, I was sat in front of the TV with my square of paper, trying to match him fold-for-fold. Needless to say my results were variable, so the spin-off books were a godsend. In this volume were instructions to make about 50 models, including a horse, a kangaroo, a snake charmer (with snake), a knight in armour. Each from a single square of paper – such ingenuity by the designers.

There was a time when, as a teenager, I could produce several quite complex models entirely from memory and I would demonstrate this skill to the girls at school… my efforts being met by a total lack of interest. Ah well…

9. Hunkin, Tim: Almost Everything There Is To Know

The Observer, in common with most Sunday newspapers, includes a colour supplement. When I used to buy it, the highlight in the supplement was a cartoon feature called “The Rudiments of Wisdom”, drawn by “Hunkin” (just the surname). Each week, the cartoon tackled a topic – I can cite “Acids”, “Advertising”, “Aggression”, “Albatrosses”, “Alchemy”, from the “A”s alone – via about ten “boxes” crammed with history, fascinating facts, amusing anecdotes, etc. The last box would usually be different – an “experiment” such as how to do a magic trick, or a scientific curiosity like keeping a ping-pong ball floating in the air with just a hair dryer.

I’m sure I’m failing to convey how much fun these cartoons were without showing some examples. Happily, I don’t have to just show you some examples; Tim Hunkin has made all of these cartoons freely available on the internet here  (with the last-box “Experiments” given their own separate section). As the site says, “Thousands of cartoons covering almost everything there is to know!” Enjoy…I know I did.

10. Wodehouse, P.G.: The Code of the Woosters

If Araucaria is my non-fiction hero, then my fiction hero is undoubtedly Wodehouse. I’m thinking in particular of the stories involving the upper-class Bertie Wooster and his manservant, Jeeves (of which this novel is one). The plots usually centre on Wooster attending a country house – maybe impersonating someone else, having to steal an object or intercept a letter. He frequently finds himself, through some misunderstanding, reluctantly engaged to a drippy girl (usually the dreadful Madeline Bassett), or tasked with having to rescue the impending nuptials of one of his upper-class-twit friends such as Gussie Fink-Nottle. Predictably, disaster ensues and it falls to the imperturbable Jeeves to resolve the situation at the 11th hour.

Jeeves and Wooster are first encountered in a series of short stories collected under the title “Carry On, Jeeves”, so I suppose that ought to be the logical place to start. But the full-length novels are where Wodehouse’s brilliant plots are given free rein, and never more so than in this work from 1938. His writing is like music, and zings with funny lines, quotations, recurring jokes. As early as the second page, we encounter the classic “… I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled…”, and the witty prose just flows for chapter after chapter (yes, you can get off your tenterhooks at last, the other writer I aspire to emulate is Wodehouse). My ten-book list shows a bias towards non-fiction and that’s a true reflection of my reading habits, but I’m sure I’ve read this novel more than any other book. What more can I say?

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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.

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118 Responses to “Judging a Wordnerd by his Covers: Part II”

  1. Hooray! And you’ve confirmed my suspicions about your excellent taste.

  2. A delightful ten book collection, something for everyone I’d have thought!

  3. Anyone with any taste loves Jeeves :-)

  4. Oh my. If I was judging you by your covers I’d definitely date you.

  5. They wouldn’t be my top ten…but at least four would be on the shortlist. Thanks!

  6. Chris you old bugger, what splendid writing!

  7. I can see where you got your lexicographical acuity.

  8. You open new doors for me to explore, thank you for your generosity in writing.

  9. The Wind in the Willows! Been so many years, but what a joy!!

  10. You’ve flashed us a glimpse, but I’d love to see more of your shelves…

  11. Hope you’re getting commission on all the wordnerds rushing to own ‘The Hancock Books’.

  12. I have a confession: I’ve never really “got” Wodehouse. Any recommended audiobooks or movies of them, for the lazy word lover?

    • That’s fair enough, Olivia. My personal view is that Wodehouse only works on the page, not the screen. In the UK we had the Stephen Fry/Hugh Laurie TV versions but they didn’t do it for me. I’m sure there are abridged and unabridged audiobooks out there, but I’ve always been happy with the books themselves.

  13. Magnificent choices!

  14. That number nine is a truly glorious discovery, thanks!

  15. A brave man, showing us your treasures, but what treasures they are. I hope those pictutes really are your books, they look well loved.

    • Oh, yes, they’re mine, Austin. They just look a bit weird stacked together when they’d normally be spread around my Fiction-by-Author and Non-Fiction-by-Subject bookcases.

  16. I am intrigued by your non-fiction tendencies. Maybe I need more non-fiction in my life.

  17. Never met a Wodehouse lover I didn’t get along with.

  18. I am even more fascinated by you now.

  19. I remember those Sunday supplements! Magic!

  20. Ooh Chris you spoil us with two artticles in one week! Loverly!

  21. Just off to the library….

  22. Too much loveliness for me to take in all at once! Gorgeous selection!!

  23. I always knew you were debonair!

  24. “It’s the great big book of everything, with everything inside”! It really is!

  25. Another hit Chris.

  26. You’ve got me all excited about books again!

  27. Fab, fab, fab.

  28. Lovely, I got so intrigued and enthralled.

  29. I love trivia and fact books – write a wordy one for us?

  30. By Jeeves! Oh yes indeed :-)

  31. I bought the Bill Bryson book today – the first I’ve ever owned, the library has kept me alive until now. Thank you for the inspiration.

    • Hi, Lerato! Gosh, I hope you enjoy it. Here’s my favourite it-makes-you-think paragraph in the whole book:

      “Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”

  32. Awesome bookshelf picks! I’m kinda ashamed of my book collection now.

  33. Give us another ten, go on…

  34. Ooh Chris, you excite me!

  35. A great, intriguing mix.

    • I just picked ten books that I felt had some significance for me, Anne. Not necessarily a recommendation for others, but I think there’s something for everyone in that set. Thanks!

  36. Some surprises – all good! You are a highlight every time, Chris.

  37. A wonder, that’s what you are.

  38. A grand tour of your predilections!

  39. Good looking books, good looking booklover, great piece.

  40. Ooohh, fascinating…snippets of Chris Hancock…

  41. Music trivia, math, Bryson, Morse, Wodehouse…you really are my kind of guy.

  42. Most delightful!

  43. Yes, a fellow Wodehouse fan! But of course…

  44. I hated waiting for part 2…but now I want part 3!

    • Ha! Well I’ve got hundreds more books to choose from, Angela. But there’s got to be a personal attachment to my choices. I don’t know if I always managed to convey that with this selection, but that was the idea. Thanks!

  45. Wodehouse: well worth the wait.

  46. Some of these are proving hard to find!

  47. I had this recently when I moved – spent hours lingering over old books. Dickens, my nan’s cookbook, Douglas Adams, Jodi Picoult…

  48. You imbue your writing with such affection.

  49. Gosh, a place online where even the comments are friendly! And no surprise, your writing oozes warmth.

  50. Ignore those silly girls, do origami for me, I’ll be impressed xx

  51. Your writing always makes me feel good about the world.

  52. Wondrous wordy whimsy.

  53. Such fun Chris! Anyone who thinks language is boring should be sent here for reeducating!

  54. Should one judge a wordnerd by his covers?

  55. Rather disappointed not to find the kama sutra there lol!

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