Books to read…

Posted on October 14th, 2008 in Driving Emotion,Opinion,Reviews by Julian Edgar

I’ve done a bit of reading in the last few weeks – most of the books were bought secondhand.

Jet – the story of pioneer Sir Frank Whittle is penned by the man himself.

It’s always fascinated me how a relatively lowly officer in the Royal Air Force could, in the 1930s, invent the concept of the jet engine. After all, where were all the government scientists and private company researchers? 

Well, to cut the story short, and to paraphrase Whittle, they were largely just getting in the way of the engine’s development. I knew that Whittle had had some differences with the private company Rover, but that’s only a tiny part of the story. This book is submerged in the detail of gaining finance, fighting government backstabbers, overcoming ignorance – and trying to stop Rover inventing “improvements” (that never were) to the design.

And all in a time of world war, the country fighting for its life.

It’s an interesting story, told well.



Changing pace, I’ve also read The World’s Worst Cars – a book that more appropriately could be labelled as ‘one of the worst books ever on cars’.  It’s written by Craig Cheetham, a task that might have taken about two hours…

The book has numerous mistakes in it – did you know that the Australian Leyland P76 was sold in competition to the Holden Commodore? That the Renault Fuego had dreadful handling? That the Triumph Stag V8 was made by “virtually welding” two four cylinders together? That the Chrysler gas turbine car – the only turbine car ever put into joe public’s hands – was a complete failure as a car?

Some points are simply wrong, some points misinterpret history (eg the aims of the Mazda Cosmo), others are simplistic and so misleading (the Stag engine was derived from the four cylinder, but…).

It’s a book suitable for only the most casual perusal.

A much more intellectual read is Collapse, by academic and scientist Jared Diamond. Subtitled ‘How societies choose to fail or survive’, it’s an interesting book that doesn’t quite succeed. While defending himself against charges of environmental determinism, the author certainly puts an awful lot of weight into the argument that environmental calamities cause societies to fail.

Some of the examples, especially Easter Island and the settlement of Greenland, are very interesting. In fact, it’s easy to argue that these chapters on civilisations of the past, and a single one on a modern society, would have been sufficient to make the author’s argument.

But instead we’re subjected to chapter after chapter of material of doubtful relevance – a tight editing of the book would have benefitted it no end. The chapter on Australia, for example – seen by Diamond as a society reinventing itself in the face of environmental pressures – is weak: plenty of material presented but straying well away from the thrust of the book.

However, like all good books, it certainly provides food for thought – a pity it’s a bit like dining at an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant where you leave feeling bloated and slightly ill.



Finally, there’s Thrust for Flight – it’s about the engines that power aircraft. Written in the late Sixties by W Thomson and then updated in the early Nineties by well known aviation writer Bill Gunston, the slim book (only 138 pages) is an excellent introduction to internal combustion and jet engines. It’s lacking in maths and formulae but still manages to be a technically accurate and rigorous treatment.

Well worth reading if you’re interested in engines.

7 Responses to 'Books to read…'

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  1. Thomas Johnson said,

    on October 15th, 2008 at 8:35 am

    Haven’t read these ones, but I always head for the technical/history sections at the local book fairs.

    Another good one to look out for is “Not Much of an Engineer” by Sir Stanley Hooker.

  2. Julian Edgar said,

    on October 15th, 2008 at 10:40 am

    Yes, ‘Not Much an Engineer’ is very good, and also ties in well with Whittle’s book.

  3. Phil Spencer said,

    on October 19th, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    Skunkworks by Ben Rich is another great read, some fantastic first hand accounts of the engineering behind the SR-71 (using some incredible jet engines) and F-117 (a very radical design).

  4. Julian Edgar said,

    on October 20th, 2008 at 6:57 am

    Yes, Skunkworks is very interesting (albeit written a bit breathlessly!) and is widely available.

  5. BG said,

    on October 20th, 2008 at 9:05 am

    Your summary of “Collapse” confirms the impression I had of the book when I saw it on a shelf. It looked very thick.. and the title + cover gave me the impression of questionable scientific strength. And I didn’t want to invest that time to re-learn the history of Easter Island. If someone wrote a 10 page summary, I’d read it for sure.

  6. Ford Man said,

    on October 21st, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    “Sliderule” by Neville Shute is a fascinating account of the development of British airships. Post WWI the British government established two teams to compete to deliver intercontinental airships. Shute was the engineering manager of the private team, and describes the engineering and logistical challenges in a short book.

  7. Julian Edgar said,

    on October 22nd, 2008 at 8:03 am

    Nevil Shute is one of my favourite authors of fiction – although his novels are very different to his autobiography (Slide Rule).