What modern textbooks seem to lack…

“one of those rare books that can produce a permanent and delightful enlargement of consciousness”

579279_10151020647534225_1039254840_nWhen W.G.Hoskins’ book “The Making of the English Landscape” was published in 1955, a contemporary review described it as “one of those rare books that can produce a permanent and delightful enlargement of consciousness”. Mark Blacksell used that quotation to start his own 50th anniversary review of Hoskins’ book under the heading “Textbooks that moved generations”. I wonder which of today’s books are those that will prove in time to have moved a generation, how they might have moved us, and whether they will turn out to have produced such a “permanent and delightful enlargement of consciousness”. None spring immediately to mind.

In a previous post here in Blank Atlas, talking about different kinds of text books, I wrote:

When I pick up a newly published textbook, or discover a new blog, or find a battered old tome from the 1950s in the 2nd-hand bookshop I don’t just want to see what facts it has to offer, and if it is an old book I know that most of the information will be out of date (wrong) anyway. What I care more about is how the book makes me look at the information, how it makes me feel about it. A great teaching resource doesn’t just give students answers, it makes them want to ask questions. I am looking for books that don’t just tell us Geography, but make us fall in love with Geography.

Clearing out my office ready for a summer redecoration I have found a few of those battered old tomes, and I have been struck by one particular difference between the old books in my Geography collection and the new ones. The older books, and I have in front of me as I write Austin Miller’s “The Skin of the Earth” (1953) and “The Poetic Impression of Natural Scenery” by Vaughan Cornish (1931), seem to be connected to – and founded in – a broad sweep of human knowledge and culture, while modern textbooks are so tightly focused on the specifics of their immediate narrow interest that they seem myopic and intellectually parochial by comparison with their forbears.

Miller, in the introduction to “The Skin of the Earth”, begins by explaining that he will state his aim by means of analogies from the art of music and the science of anatomy, and he goes on to explore the basics of Physical Geography in terms of The Symphony of Landscape and The Anatomy and Physiology of the Skin of the Earth. At the end of the book he adds a postscript in which he sets the book’s Physical Geography focus into its broader Geographical context with these words:

“If it should be thought that the austere and unemotional tone of the exercises in this book have dehumanized the study of geography, the simple answer is that human geography begins where this book ends… Colour, expression and the personality that reveals itself in the life and movement that goes on upon its surface have found no place in what has been no more than an objective investigation of the form and function of the outer skin of the earth.”

(Miller, 1953, p.196)

 IMG_3932Glancing through my modern Physical Geography textbooks I see no apologies for their austere and unemotional tone. As a student I was explicitly taught to write in that way. Likewise, in my modern books I see scant reference to other disciplines, to historical events or to any wide cultural knowledge as a way of explaining or introducing particular points of geographical information.

I wonder, is it that authors of my generation have believed too much what they were taught about writing in an austere and unemotional tone, and about seeing the science but not the poetry or symphony in the landscape? Or is it that authors think that their readers lack that context of cultural, historical or artistic reference and so will not understand those sorts of analogies? Or, at worst, is it that somewhere, either at the stage of writing or at the stage of reading geography, too many authors and too many readers have lost the breadth of interest to set their appreciations of science, landscape, art, history, geology, sociology and music in context with each other and with the rest of our experience? If so, perhaps that explains why I am finding it increasingly difficult to find either colleagues or students who are genuinely interested in Geography, rather than in just some specific topic of social geography or glacial geomorphology or whichever small area of knowledge so occupies their interest that it leaves no room for broader contextualisation.

Books such as those by Hoskins, Miller or Cornish never seemed to assume that the reader was only a Historian, or only a Physical Geographer. I would like to see some modern Geography textbooks that did not underestimate the range of their readers’ knowledge and interest!

References:

Blacksell, M. (2005) Textbooks that moved generations – review of W.G.Hoskins The making of the English landscape. Progress in Human Geography 29, 1 95-96.

Cornish, V. (1931) The poetic impression of natural scenery. Sifton Praed, London.

Hoskins, W.G. (1955) The making of the English landscape. Hodder and Stoughton, London.

Miller, A. (1953) The skin of the Earth. Methuen, London.

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One comment

  1. Picking up on your comment about analogies, there is a lovely paragraph in the introduction to G.H. Dury’s (1959) textbook “The Face of the Earth.” He writes:

    “Almost any piece of country includes remnants of former landscapes, as if it were a document with scraps of past history written on it. Some of the earlier notes are obscured by the later, and parts of the record are invariably missing. All the skill of the logician – or of an amateur detective – is required in the work of decipherment. At times, the task of reconstruction is as formidable as the restoring of a whole film from a single photographic still.”

    There’s a vivid and challenging geographical perspective!

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