Daniel Hahn

Does knotted string constitute ‘writing’?

What particularly excites Silvia Ferrara, the author of The Greatest Invention, is not language per se but writing – that is, the specific tool created for recording and conveying language visually. Sound made visible, tangible. The impulse to communicate might be innate, but writing is cultural, and in no way inevitable. It’s a bit of

Experiences of Eton — and the success it rewards

In the summer of 2019, the journalist Anita Sethi was on a train travelling across northern England when she was racially abused by another passenger. Besides using several words too offensive to quote, the man spat that Sethi should go back to where she came from. And so she did. Sethi comes from Manchester. Her

The unseen enemy

We could begin almost anywhere. But let’s start in Ukraine, with Babar Aliev. Babar is a former gang leader who used social media disinformation campaigns to undermine a separatist movement. When his opponents won, he was picked up and put on a train out of town. His great disappointment, he tells Peter Pomerantsev in This

The gift of tongues

English as the world’s lingua franca isn’t going anywhere. Why, then, should we Anglophones bother to learn another language? What’s in it for us? And what, more seriously, are the implications if we decide not to bother? Digging deeply into these questions, Marek Kohn’s book asks what it actually means to have some mastery of

Everyone’s a victim

From the very first pages of Among the Lost, we’re engaged, and compromised. Estela and Epitafio are our main anchors, their experiences and relationship driving the story’s developments, but these magnetic central characters are people-traffickers and kidnappers, capable of startling violence and dehumanising cruelty. And truly, they’re very much in love. For most of the

Think before you write

This is a sentence. As is this — not an exceptionally beautiful one, but a sentence all the same, just telling you what it needs to tell you, just getting on with things, doing its job. Sentences are everyday, functional things, ubiquitous and unappreciated. And Joe Moran thinks it’s about time we started noticing them.

They shall not pass

Francisco Cantú’s mother is surprised when he announces he’s joining the Border Patrol and going to work in the Arizona desert. He has just received a college degree, studying international relations. His response to her bafflement — and concern — is that he wants to see the reality, what it’s like ‘in the field’. This

Goodbye to all that | 12 April 2018

Alberto Manguel is a kind of global Reader Laureate: he is reading’s champion, its keenest student and most zealous proselytiser, an ideal exemplar of the Reader embodied. And reading is not only his committed, devoted practice, but also the very subject of some of his best writing. His latest book to wander through this familiar

The art of deception | 9 November 2017

Enric Marco has had a remarkable life. A prominent Catalan union activist, a brave resistance fighter in the Spanish Civil War, a charismatic Nazi concentration camp survivor, and more. In January 2005 he addressed the Spanish parliament to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He is, everyone agrees, an extraordinary man. Heroic,

The cold grip of fear

A screenwriter sits in a lovely rented house somewhere up an Alp in early December. The air is clear, the views stunning, the isolation splendid. He rented the home through Airbnb — surprisingly cheaply, as it happens. He has come to this place for a family holiday with his wife Susanna and their four-year-old, Esther,

The classic that conquered the world

Somewhere between his first and second drafts, Victor Hugo decided to change the title of his great novel from Les Misères to Les Misérables, shifting the focus from society’s problems to the people suffering them. And what problems they were. Hugo had never been brutally poor himself, but he’d borne witness to enough brutal poverty

Spectator Books of the Year: The real impact of guns on America

I’ve chosen two very different stories of young American lives. In Another Day in the Death of America (Guardian/Faber, £16.99), the journalist Gary Younge anatomises American society and its squandered potential by means of a simple conceit: he chose a random date in 2013 and investigated the lives of those children and teenagers shot and

Who you think you are

The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays about black and ethnic minority experience and identity in Britain today, is inconsistent, infuriating, uncomfortable and just occasionally insulting. It is also right to be every one of those things, and highly recommended. Its editor, Nikesh Shukla, was prompted to compile the book by an online comment on

Beyond the looking-glass

Children’s fantasy literature has never been just one thing. Animal fables, folk and fairy tales were not originally intended for a child audience, while the relatively recent phenomenon that is entertaining (rather than principally didactic) children’s literature has many origins that are not fantastic at all. Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn draw a line —

Laws that changed the world

One of the things Philippe Sands clearly remembers from his grandparents’ Paris apartment — a rather sombre, silent place — is the lack of family photographs. There’s a single, framed, unsmiling wedding photo, and that’s all. There is no mood of bittersweet nostalgia, there are no nods to memory or history. Where did his grandparents

A breath of fresh air

His professional achievements aside, Quentin Blake’s life has been rather short on biographical event, so this book is not a biography. (That gets dispatched briefly in a six-page timeline.) Rather, it’s a grateful appreciation — partisan, certainly, but well argued — of all that this remarkable artist has given us. Through his books, his pictures

Riddles in the sand

When the Saqqara pyramids were opened in 1880, the chamber walls were found to be covered in hieroglyphic writings, and these texts have been a subject of discussion among Egyptologists ever since. What do they mean? What do they represent? What do they tell us about the religion or the cosmology or the worldview of

Their heads in the clouds

As I got into a Brighton taxi this morning, my driver’s first words were ‘apparently it’ll clear in a couple of hours’. I gathered — of course — that he was talking about the morning mist. ‘It’s almost gone already up in town.’ A conversation about weather prospects is hardly uncommon in British taxis, and

Style over substance

We begin in Paris with an introduction to five insignificant friends. One (Ramon) is walking past the new Chagall exhibition, but decides against visiting — not for the first time, nor the last — because of the queues. Another (D’Ardelo) is returning from the doctor’s, where he has learned that he does not have cancer