London and the Olympics
by Svetlana Grobman, Reference Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.
Once again, the Olympic torch is making its way from the Temple of Hera in Olympia to the new host city of the Olympic Games, and once again, we're preparing to watch our favorite events and root for our teams. Of course, for this experience to be fully satisfying, we need to know what to look for in a sport. David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton come to our rescue with "How to Watch the Olympics: The Essential Guide to the Rules, Statistics, Heroes, and Zeroes of Every Sport" (Penguin Group, 2012). The authors arrange competitions alphabetically by sport, and they explain each sport with sections such as "Why Watch Archery?" or "The Finer Points of Fencing." The book also gives a brief history of the sports and provides illustrations delineating their rules and techniques.
Those who would like even more history should check out "A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics" by Neil Faulkner (Yale University, 2012). The author takes us 2,400 years back to the heyday of the city-state of Olympia, where athletes competed naked, women weren't allowed in the stadium and visitors enjoyed races and combat sports with almost no rules and no consideration for blood and pain. Faulkner also describes the exotic religious rituals and the ancient spectators—from champions and charlatans to aristocrats and prostitutes. A time-travel guide at its best, this book reconstructs the sights, sounds and smells of the events as it conveys the excitement of the games.
Now let's turn our attention to the host city of the 2012 Olympic Games. Numerous guidebooks have been published to help the anticipated 5.5 million visitors navigate London's streets and Olympic venues. Yet it's not the sports that make London special but its rich history, culture and architecture. "London: An Architectural History" (Yale University, 2006) by Anthony Sutcliffe leads its readers through 2,000 years of the city's development—from the work of Roman times to the newest Docklands architecture. Well-written and richly illustrated, this book will make you feel as if you're touring London with the ultimate guide.
To fully grasp the essence of this great city, we need to learn more about its people. London Mayor Boris Johnson profiles 18 famous Londoners in "Johnson's Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World" (Riverhead Books, 2012). The book starts from the days when "a bunch of pushy Italians" created Londinium, and it continues through a procession of the famous and infamous, the brilliant and the bizarre—from Hadrian to Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson and from Florence Nightingale to The Rolling Stones and Keith Richards.
No discussion of London can be complete without mentioning its literary giants, beginning with Shakespeare. One somewhat recent book about the elusive Bard is Bill Bryson's "Shakespeare: The World as Stage" (Atlas Books, 2007). Bryson, best known as a humorous travel writer, takes his job seriously, constructing an interesting account of a subject nobody knows much about, as Bryson puts it: "He is a kind of literary equivalent of an electron—forever there and not there." Part literary history and part detective story, "The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) by Eric Rasmussen is an examination of the known surviving copies of the 1623 First Folio of 36 of Shakespeare's plays. This book is written for general readers and scholars alike, and it depicts the long history of the desire to own one of the world's most valuable books.
Unlike Shakespeare, whose private life might always remain a mystery, a lot is known about another famous Londoner, Charles Dickens, whose 200th birthday the world celebrates in 2012. "Charles Dickens: A Life" (Penguin, 2011) by Claire Tomalin describes the many accomplishments and virtues of the great man, whose life was as eventful and dramatic as any of his novels. Tomalin also shows Dickens' dark side and its impact on his later years. "Charles Dickens: Dickens' Bicentenary, 1812-2012" (Insight Editions, 2011), written by the great-great-great-granddaughter of the famous English novelist, Lucinda Hawksley, in cooperation with the Charles Dickens Museum, London, follows Dickens from early childhood, including his time spent as a child laborer, to the time he became the greatest celebrity of his age. The text is enhanced with photographs, newspaper articles, manuscript excerpts, letters and much more.
Not only was London a stage for Shakespeare and Dickens; it also inspired them. To learn more, we should take a walk around the city. Our guides are "Walking Shakespeare's London" by Nicholas Robins (Interlink Books, 2005) and "Walking Dickens' London: The Time Traveller's Guide" by Lee Jackson (Shire, 2012). Both books include illustrations and color photos, as well as recommended bibliographies, museum times, concise maps, etc.
Also, let's not forget about London's criminal underbelly—from its fictional detective Sherlock Holmes to the real killer Jack the Ripper. Whitechapel Society, the world's largest organization for the study of Jack the Ripper, presents the 10 most popular theories about the killer's identity in "Jack the Ripper: The Suspects" (History Press, 2012). The book's essays consider the plausibility of each suspect, either ruling him out entirely or creating a strong case for another. In the end, it is up to the reader to decide who the mystery man was.
It's impossible to describe London in a short article, so let me end my modest attempt with this quote from Samuel Johnson, author of "A Dictionary of the English Language": "By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show."