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12.22.10

The Best of Brit Lit

The editor of the Times Literary Supplement picks great British reads. This week: Did the Germans invent Christmas?, a new life of explosive polymath Galileo, and a little known British inventor.

Did the Germans Invent Christmas?

We sound a festive note in this week's TLS; it is well known that many of the most widely celebrated Christmas traditions—from the Christmas tree to the Nutcracker Suite—are imported from Germany. But as Rebecca K. Morrison reveals in her review of Christmas in Germany, it would be wrong to think that, in their place of origin, these traditions are part of “a holiday celebrated thus since time immemorial.” The traditional German Christmas “is a relatively recent invention, one moulded and manipulated by those in power from the early nineteenth century.” Ms Morrison reflects on "both the genuine beauty and darker shadows cast by the Tannenbaum and the sombre echoes contained within sweet renditions of 'Silent Night'."

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Galileo: Watcher of the Skies. By David Wootton. 354 pages. Yale University Press. $35. ()

Galileo’s Explosive Life and Legacy

For a different view of the sky at night, Claudio Vita-Finzi considers the remarkable life and legacy of Galileo Galileo, "a mathematician who was also a musician, artist, writer, philosopher, gadgeteer, observer, draughtsman and craftsman and above all purveyor of good taste in the arts and the sciences, who settled on maths only to avoid a career in medicine." In fact, "until he turned forty-five—and trained his telescope on the sky—Galileo was a patrician humanist. He then became a quixotic and fearless scientific knight errant."

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Sir Hugh Plat: The Search for Useful Knowledge in Early Modern London. By Malcolm Thick. 432 pages. Prospect Books. £30. ()

An English Virtuoso

Another all-rounder—admittedly less successful—is discussed in the TLS this week; the "English virtuoso" Sir Hugh Plat, "alchemist, courtier and all-round inventor," who "offers a fascinating window on to Elizabethan inventiveness." Bee Wilson admires his energy: "His inventions, which he only rarely capitalized on as fully as he would have liked, spanned a new and improved type of gunpowder; fuel-saving coalballs; a rainproof fabric; a parsnip cake to cure famine; a copper press for moulding small objects; a cupboard for drying herbs; a papier mâché for making interesting carved faces; cinnamon water; a new and cheap lantern; and a series of special dice for teaching children their ABCs."

Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.