Pretty much every anniversary of the slightest significance to anyone anywhere gets its share of the limelight these days. This year, though, there are some anniversaries that I reckon deserve pretty much all the attention that’s being lavished upon them. Both are, in their very different ways, writing-related, and both are ultimately about the power of words – and that’s nice stuff to be celebrating, if you ask me.
The greatest hullabaloo, not unreasonably, surrounds a two for the price of one special offer: the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and the 150th of the publication of On the Origin of Species.
Origin of Species would be pretty high on my personal list of most significant books ever published. Nowadays, if Darwin was unleashing his radical ideas upon an unsuspecting world, there’d no doubt be not only the book, but soon enough the TV series, the website, the YouTube channel of explanatory lectures etc. etc. But even now, in this digital age, I can’t help but think it would be the book that really mattered. It would be the book that lasted, and that constituted the most complete prospectus for his theories. All the other, digital, stuff might be seen by more people in the short term, but it would be the book that was the real defining, immortalising statement of his beliefs over future centuries. I think. Or maybe I just hope.
Still, Origin wouldn’t be that high on my list of ‘great reads’. Since one of the many flavours of my geekishness is ‘biological sciences nerd’ (a little known subspecies, that), I did find it interesting when I read it long ago, but the journal of his voyage on HMS Beagle is a bit more of a straightforwardly enjoyable read: an intelligent and observant 19th century traveller visiting places that most of us, even now, will never get to, and thinking about what he sees there in ways that most of us are not capable of. You can get abridged mp3s of it here, and this would be a good year to give it a listen.
I’m halfway through Janet Browne’s giant two volume biography of Darwin, incidentally, and for any fellow biological sciences nerds out there I can thoroughly recommend it.
The other big commemorative party this year, in Scotland at least, is for the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth. I can’t claim to be much of a Burnsologist (though I’m a big fan of Burns Night – especially the food and drink involved) but I’ve always thought he had a certain special something: he wrote populist, accessible stuff, without great literary pretension or elobarate, elitist intent, but he wrote it with such elegance, with such a neat turn of phrase and such an instinct for the rhythms of language, that he sometimes conjured a kind of magic out of apparently simple series of words.
Plenty of people seem to agree with me, since he is a Scottish national icon who is actively and genuinely treasured here (as well as overseas) almost as much as the international publicity and tourist-targeted promotions would have you believe.
So a couple of Burns’ best bits, for your listening/viewing pleasure:
and, of course, A Man’s A Man For A’ That, first spoken:
and then done in a way I suspect Robert Burns would wholly approve of: