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May 03, 2022

Women’s prize judge Lorraine Candy, journalist Sarah Shaffi and Guardian readers Kate and Saffron discuss the titles they’ve read over the last month. Join the conversation in the comments

In this series we ask authors, Guardian writers and readers to share what they’ve been reading recently. This month, recommendations include women’s prize shortlisted novels, a thrillingly-paced account of financial corruption and a 1980 Booker prize finalist. Tell us what you’ve been reading in the comments.

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May 03, 2022

This clear-sighted page-turner explores systematic, everyday prejudice against women – not least when it comes to male violence

For Laura Bates, it began with a heavy piece of gold jewellery that her mother found on the passenger seat of the family car. It was a gift from her grandparents. Her mother, after two daughters, had been rewarded for giving birth to a son. “I am five years old,” Bates writes, “and have no idea I’ve already been weighed, valued and found wanting.”

This incident is the first on what the feminist writer and activist calls “my list”. She encourages all women to make one, charting a life in sexism, from the playground to the street to the workplace. “By the time I leave university, aged 20,” Bates writes, “I have been sexually assaulted, pressured to perform topless in a theatre production (I stand my ground, but the experience leaves me in tears) and cornered in the street by two men shouting, ‘We’re going to part those legs and fuck that cunt.’”

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May 02, 2022

The prizewinning New Yorker journalist provides more questions than answers in a tantalising tale of a psychiatrist fascinated by predicting disasters

Sam Knight is a prizewinning British New Yorker journalist whose features and profiles fizz with doggedly chased-down detail distilled into compelling narrative, whether he’s writing about Ronnie O’Sullivan, the £8bn-a-year sandwich industry or preparations for the death of the Queen (“Operation London Bridge”). The Premonitions Bureau, his first book, showcases the gifts that make him so endlessly readable. A richly researched feat of compression, it tells a tantalising tale of the unlikely interplay between the press, psychiatry and the paranormal in Britain during the late 1960s.

Knight’s central character (so fluently does he tell his outlandish story, it’s hard not to think of it as a novel) is John Barker, a Cambridge-educated psychiatrist whose interest in clairvoyance led him to pitch the Evening Standard late in 1966 with the idea of a “Premonitions Bureau”, by which readers would come forward with portents of catastrophe, such as that year’s deadly landslide at Aberfan. The paper went for it and over the following year received 732 premonitions, 18 of which seemed to be borne out, of which 12 came from two people: Kathleen Lorna Middleton, a privately wealthy ballet teacher, and Alan Hencher, a switchboard operator who had been experiencing premonitions, accompanied by intense headaches, since a car accident.

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May 02, 2022

CEO-director of Compton Verney Art Gallery replaces Peter Florence after ‘an extensive nationwide recruitment process’

Julie Finch has been appointed CEO of the Hay festival and will succeed founder and former director Peter Florence, who resigned from his role after a bullying claim was upheld last year.

The prestigious literary festival, now in its 35th year, selected the former CEO of the Cheltenham Trust for the role after “an extensive nationwide recruitment process”.

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May 02, 2022

Recent scientific advances raise the prospect of living longer – but ‘healthspan’ is just as important as lifespan

Is there any way to avoid the decay and frailty that come with age? Jeff Bezos thinks so. A biotech company that the founder of Amazon has helped fund, Altos Labs, is said to have $3bn at its disposal to research ways of holding back the clock. Closer to home, scientists at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge recently announced they had altered a 53-year-old woman’s skin cells so they behaved as though they were 30 years younger.

Promising as this may seem, it’s a long road from the lab to the clinic. But the difficulty of translating scientific breakthroughs into treatment hasn’t stopped an explosion in research. To understand why the once fantastical idea of preventing or reversing ageing is even considered a possibility these days, we need to appreciate exactly what happens as we get older.

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May 02, 2022

In this folksy, magnetic tale, two outsiders seek healing and enlightenment by creating crop formations in a Wiltshire field

It’s 1989, and over the course of a blazing Wiltshire summer, a series of mysterious and increasingly complex crop circles appear in the county’s ripening wheat fields. Combining precise geometry and motifs from eastern spirituality and Celtic mythology, they’re soon attracting international attention from the media, UFO enthusiasts, dowsers, exorcists and tourists.

Benjamin Myers’s latest novel, The Perfect Golden Circle, is every bit as idiosyncratic as its subject matter, combining lyricism with comedy and themes that range from warfare and environmental calamity to hope and healing.

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May 02, 2022

The Ukrainian poet’s modernist work grips the reader and commands attention with its political parable of power and trust set in the eerie beauty of nature

Solitude is poor …

Solitude is poor?

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May 02, 2022

Six interlinked stories aim to capture the uncertainty of young adulthood today with mixed results

These six short stories are almost a novel, interlinked by characters who drift and reconnect with one another in the way friends do, living a big-city, post-university life. And this is Calder’s canvas: young adulthood, and a generation simultaneously bound to one another via social media and yet lost in a disconnected modern world. It comes, helpfully, with a glowing quote from that generation’s chronicler-in-chief, Sally Rooney, who calls Reward System “an exhilarating and beautiful book”.

They’re not necessarily the two adjectives I find myself reaching for. Calder’s stories are impressively detailed in their fine-grain attention to the banal stuff-of-life and his characters’ inner agonies – from panics over not being able to remember if you locked a door to awkward social interactions in the workplace. But he writes with a cool, contemporary detachment rather than much heat.

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May 01, 2022

Oded Galor’s attempt to unify economic theory is impressive and insightful, even as it overreaches

It is the social scientist’s dream: to outdo Adam Smith, Max Weber and Karl Marx and come up with a unifying theory of why society has developed as it has, where it is going next and how its wrongs can be righted. At times, reading Oded Galor’s upbeat book I thought he had cracked it, taken aback by his imagination and verve. For example, it is obvious once pointed out that agricultural economies reliant on the plough necessarily diminish women’s role in wider economic and social life because ploughs need male muscle, which leads to women taking over household duties rather than sharing duties in fields where soil is easier to work. What Galor shows is that this gendered division of labour persists over generations, even in countries to which plough-using peoples migrate. He is nothing if not original.

But ultimately, achieving the dream of explaining everything is too big an ask, even for an economist of Galor’s range. He is so devoted to the hidden long-run pulses that determine our destinies – geography, climate, diversity, the capacity to be future-oriented, the role of education, the rights and wrongs of Malthusian economics – that he neglects what is in full view. An account that purports to describe humanity’s journey without getting to grips with why some innovations – such as the three-masted sailing ship, printing press or computer – change civilisation while others are more ordinary, can only be incomplete. These “general-purpose technologies” not only have diverse origins, as he argues, but also require an extraordinary interplay between state funding, large markets, cultural readiness and capitalist organisation to get off the ground. The printing press was not only the result of Gutenberg living on the Rhine, where trade routes from various regions brought invention and ideas: it also needed Protestant princes to fund the prototypes and buy the presses, and then an exploding, religiously driven appetite for published bibles, hymns and sermons in Reformation Europe.

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May 01, 2022

A journey into space and some serious monkey business portray bedtime in a whole new light, while a tiny dot gives a kindly lesson in understanding emotions

Spring is here, a fresh coat of paint splashed over the world, the sight of unfurling leaves and bright flowers giving many people an extra bounce in their step. Those longer days can bring a new challenge for anyone with little children, though: how to get them to sleep when the pesky sun is still beaming through the windows?

Just in time come two new picture books exploring bedtime. First up, Clare Helen Walsh’s mini science lesson wrapped up in a beautifully cosy tale which finds Miki and her mother flying off into space to find out why it’s still light, even though Miki has brushed her teeth and put on her PJs. While they zip past stars and planets, Sunshine at Bedtime (Storyhouse) scoots through the basics of how the Earth orbits the sun and how that causes seasons. Illustrator Sally Soweol Han characterises the sun with fluttery eyelashes and a huge smile, blushing each page with a soft glow.

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May 01, 2022

Margo Jefferson’s follow-up to her acclaimed Negroland is another intimate and intelligent memoir that asks searching questions about her heritage and a privileged US society

Margo Jefferson is the rare memoirist who is always daring the reader to keep up. She’d rather recall her fleeting impressions instead of recounting a scene and the sheer volume of her allusions to 20th-century Americana – she worked for years on the culture desk of the New York Times – casts an instant spell. In her 2015 book, Negroland, she found a form that held together a portrait of her childhood in a rarefied black enclave in 1950s Chicago, and her early encounters with feminism as a young woman in New York, interspersed with musings on Little Women, James Baldwin and The Ed Sullivan Show. The book was alternately categorised as social history and memoir. The typical Jefferson paragraph, zigzagging through different perspectives, freely borrowing and repurposing other writers’ sentences and song lyrics, invariably reminds me of something one character tells another in Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities: “It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”

Constructing a Nervous System begins with Jefferson reporting a bad dream: she is alone on a stage and “I extended my arm – no, flung, hurled it out – pointed an accusatory finger” at herself. You sense straight away that Jefferson’s intention is not to tell a story, but to relay an inner tempest on the page. In the next few pages, she quotes from a letter she wrote in 2018 to her dead mother, rewrites lines from an Ethel Waters song and confesses to secretly idolising mid-century black male singers because of their “immersive lure of danger and dominance”. She bristles at classifying these mental leaps as either criticism (“too graciously incantatory”) or memoir (“commemoratively grand”): “Call it temperamental autobiography.”

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May 01, 2022

Details released of tale about Queen’s 70-year reign, which is felt to be too ‘Anglocentric’ by devolved governments

The platinum jubilee children’s book due to go out to every state primary school pupil to celebrate the Queen this month will not be welcomed in all Welsh or Scottish schools.

On the request of the Scottish and Welsh governments, schools in those countries will be asked instead to opt-in to receive copies.

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Apr 30, 2022

A penetrating analysis of the connections that enabled an incestuous university network to dominate Westminster and give birth to Brexit is perceptive and full of surprises

At a “slave auction” at the Oxford Union in 1987 – an “opportunity to buy your favourite union person for the evening” – there was, according to the university newspaper, frenzied bidding for the services of the kilt-wearing 19-year-old Michael Gove. He went for £35. Gove was known at the time as one of the three pre-eminent orators in the small world of the university debating chamber – the others were Nick Robinson, future BBC political editor, and Simon Stevens, until recently chief executive of NHS England.

The previous year’s union president, Boris Johnson, failed to show up for the slave auction and was sold in absentia. Johnson’s own rhetorical style differed from the self-conscious rigour of his peers. He had learned, Simon Kuper writes, in debates at Eton, “to defeat opponents whose arguments were better simply by ignoring their arguments”. He offered instead “carefully timed jokes, calculated lowerings of the voice, and ad hominem jibes”. In this manner, he had won the election to union presidency with the help of various self-described “votaries in the Boris cult”, including Gove and future Covid sceptic Toby Young.

Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK by Simon Kuper is published by Profile (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Apr 30, 2022

The Shakespeare critic and author on her new history of books and readers, and how it’s made her think about the contents of our shelves

Emma Smith is professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University. Her bestselling book This Is Shakespeare was praised by the likes of Hilary Mantel and Margaret Drabble. She is an expert on Shakespeare’s First Folio – the 1623 first collected edition of his plays, and one of the most valuable books in the world. She has written books about the First Folio and in 2016 was called upon to authenticate a newly discovered copy at Mount Stuart library on the Isle of Bute (it was genuine). Smith also hosts Approaching Shakespeare, a podcast series. Her latest book, Portable Magic, is a history of reading that explores the way books have shaped our social, cultural and political lives.

Did your work on the First Folio steer you towards writing this history of the physical book?
I think that’s probably true. And my investment in how that book was transformed from a fairly normal product of the print marketplace into this glass-case icon. I was really interested in thinking about that book in the history of libraries and the collecting of books and the values that these practices put on books.

Portable Magic by Emma Smith is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Apr 30, 2022

Oded Galor’s ‘Sapiens’-like history of civilisation predicts a happy ending for humanity. But should we trust him?

Why is the Anglo-Saxon world so individualistic, and why has China leaned towards collectivism? Was it Adam Smith, or the Bill of Rights; communism and Mao? According to at least one economist, there might be an altogether more surprising explanation: the difference between wheat and rice. You see, it’s fairly straightforward for a lone farmer to sow wheat in soil and live off the harvest. Rice is a different affair: it requires extensive irrigation, which means cooperation across parcels of land, even centralised planning. A place where wheat grows favours the entrepreneur; a place where rice grows favours the bureaucrat.

The influence of the “initial conditions” that shape societies’ development is what Oded Galor has been interested in for the past 40 years. He believes they reverberate across millennia and even seep into what we might think of as our personalities. Whether or not you have a “future-oriented mindset” – in other words, how much money you save and how likely you are to invest in your education – can, he argues, be partly traced to what kinds of crops grew well in your ancestral homelands. (Where high-yield species such as barley and rice thrive, it pays to sacrifice the immediate gains of hunting by giving over some of your territory to farming. This fosters a longer-term outlook.) Differences in gender equality around the world have their roots in whether land required a plough to cultivate – needing male strength, and relegating women to domestic tasks – or hoes and rakes, which could be used by both sexes.

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Apr 30, 2022
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Apr 29, 2022

A brilliantly unjaded exploration of the power of songs to intoxicate, enthuse and reassure

Jude Rogers’s The Sound of Being Human begins in January 1984. She is five years old and standing at the front door of her parents’ house in south Wales. Her father is about to leave for what should be a routine hospital surgery. He’ll be gone for five days – a lifetime for someone that young. Still, five days. Like him – because of him – she loves pop radio. The new Top 40 will be announced the following day. “Let me know who gets to No 1,” he says. He died, just 33, a couple of days later. Years go by, decades. Often, at moments she can’t anticipate, in ways she can’t always grasp, she finds herself caught short, lonely.

Music becomes a crutch for Rogers. A community – or at least a notion of one. She thinks about the songs she and her father shared. The songs they might have shared. In pop she discovers father figures, fantasies of escape, ways to feel less unmoored. She grew up in small towns before the era of the internet. Pop seemed miraculous then, a kind of abduction. She chances upon a copy of Smash Hits – all funfair colours and splashy exclamation marks – in a local newsagent: “It lifted me above the red-tops, the black-and-blue Biros, the duplicate receipts books, the faded toys on the carousel, the sun-blasted birthday cards, the old boxes of penny sweets.” She progresses to buying REM bootleg tapes from a grimy record fair held in a hotel showroom “next to the market that sold polystyrene pots of cockles and laverbread”.

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Apr 29, 2022

The gay writer who was banned from visiting a London school discusses why young LGBT+ people need representation more than ever

A few weeks after he was banned from visiting a London school by the Catholic church, Simon James Green was confronted with an array of protest paraphernalia. The author, whose stories for young adults have been applauded for reflecting the upside, as well as the angst, of queer teen lives, was at an awards ceremony in Bristol. Members of a local school’s LGBT+ society had made banners and leaflets proclaiming their solidarity, and denouncing “kids in Catholic school locked in the closet”.

“It was so touching, so all-round impressive,” Green says. Neatly, it also encapsulates the core message of Gay Club!, his latest novel for young adults, which follows chess geek Barney on his mission to shake up his own school’s LGBT+ society. “Pinning some rainbow flags to our club noticeboard won’t change anything,” says Barney. “We need to unite and fight. Campaign. Be visible.”

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Apr 29, 2022

Astral phenomena, Greek goddesses, deadly family curses and the best new YA fiction

How to Count to ONE by Caspar Salmon and Matt Hunt (Nosy Crow, £6.99)
A sly, interactive picture book that tries, with transparent duplicity, to trick its small readers into counting numbers higher than one. Bold colours, naive images and a strong, sustained shared joke make for a counting book with a delightful difference.

The Comet by Joe Todd-Stanton (Flying Eye, £12.99)
Nyla is sad when she and Dad move to the city, away from trees, stars and the sound of waves. When she sees a comet race across the sky, she feels a sense of home – but will Dad understand as she tries to trace its path? A luminously beautiful picture book, full of bittersweet farewell feelings, about learning to welcome the new.

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Apr 29, 2022

With a calmly astonished tone, the author narrates the shocking story of how the Sackler family made its money out of the lethal painkiller OxyContin

A remarkable piece of narrative reporting and a sweeping family saga, New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe’s award-winning book about the Sackler family and its role in America’s opioid crisis begins with the seemingly heart-warming tale of three Brooklyn brothers realising the dreams of their immigrant parents by becoming doctors. The Sacklers ­went on to become one of the richest families in the US – they have an estimated fortune of $14bn – known for their philanthropy and feted for their donations to art galleries, universities and medical institutes.

Drawing on newly available court documents and more than 200 interviews, Empire of Pain reveals how the family made its money from the suffering of Americans through the aggressive sales techniques of Purdue, the Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company that became the biggest producer of OxyContin. The slow-release painkiller is twice as powerful as morphine and significantly more addictive. Approved by an official at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who, a year later, took a high-paying job at Purdue, the drug contributed to the deaths of nearly 500,000 people over 20 years and wrecked the lives of millions more.

Keefe, who narrates his book, is no stranger to audio: many listeners will know his voice from the hit podcast Wind of Change, which investigated the rumour that the titular power ballad by German rockers Scorpions was written by the CIA. If the vibe there was one of amusement, here he adopts a calmly astonished tone as he tells a shocking story of callousness, cover-ups and monumental greed.

• Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty is available via Picador, 18hr 6min

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Apr 29, 2022

The author on his early love of the Narnia Chronicles, the allure of spontaneous combustion – and one of the great neglected children’s authors of the 20th century

My earliest reading memory
I was three years old, we lived in Purbrook, near Portsmouth, and if I had been remarkably good my mother would order a book at the local bookshop and a month later we would go and pick it up. I remember a children’s Hiawatha, a beautiful edition of The Pied Piper of Hamelin illustrated by Margaret Tarrant, and an illustrated Mikado I’d learn the words of the songs without tunes: “Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock from a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block” and so on. Gloriously morbid stuff for a three-year-old.

My favourite book growing up
If you’d asked me at seven or eight it would have been the Narnia books, which I found infinitely re-readable – I wanted to live in them. But if you had asked me at nine or 10 it was The Lord of the Rings. I was convinced it was not only the best book anybody had ever written but that it was the best book anybody ever would write. I just had to find out how it ended, as my school only had the first two books. When I won the school English prize, I asked for The Return of the King as my prize book.

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Apr 28, 2022

Set in a magical realist outpost of the West Country, the singer-songwriter’s novel-in-verse delights in Dorset dialect and folklore

A novel-in-verse written in dense Dorset vernacular, Orlam is a curious and enchanting thing. Like a dark poetic almanac, it charts, month by month, a year in which its heroine, nine-year-old Ira-Abel Rawles, leaves behind the innocence of her childhood.

Orlam takes the reader by the hand, with each poem laid out opposite its “standard” translation and an abundance of footnotes to illuminate a hoard of folklore. This doubling slows down the reader who cares to be slowed, allowing them to puzzle out the dialect words and the way they change the poems.

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Apr 28, 2022

Rundell captures John Donne’s unique vision in all its power, eloquence and strangeness

In 1611, John Donne composed a funeral elegy for 14-year-old Elizabeth Drury. It contained one of his most brilliant, unsettling lines: “One might almost say, her body thought.” Donne portrayed body and soul as radically, delightfully commingled.

This is a poem that has long excited Donne commentators. John Carey, in his landmark 1981 Life, Mind and Art, was fascinated by Donne’s conviction that, as he wrote in a sermon, “all that the soul does, it does in, and with, and by the body”. Now the academic and children’s writer Katherine Rundell puts the poem centre stage in a book she describes as “both a biography of Donne and an act of evangelism”. For Rundell, Donne is writing into being a new ideal: a “completed meshing of body and imagination”.

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Apr 28, 2022

This companion novel to A Visit from the Goon Squad, in which memories are uploaded and shared, explores the loneliness of hyper-connectivity

A visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan’s 2010 Pulitzer-winning rock’n’roll novel, felt like the beginning of something. It was a tale as gimmicky and restless as the smartphone era threatened to be. One chapter was written entirely in PowerPoint slides; another in textspeak (“if thr r children, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?”). The cast was a neon collision of kleptomaniacs, philanderers, It girls, autocrats and a guitar band called the Flaming Dildos. And the plot ricocheted like a browsing-addled brain. But if A Visit from the Goon Squad carried the promise of a grand wave of tech-inflected fiction, that literary trend never quite materialised. In an era of screen-curated selfhood, autofiction surged instead.

A dozen years on, and Egan’s cult novel now feels like the end of something, a kind of techno-optimist elegy: a study in time’s “incremental deflations”, and the loneliness of hyper-connectivity. It’s this sense of paradoxical isolation that Egan revisits in her new book. The Candy House is less a sequel to Goon Squad than a fraternal twin. Minor characters are thrust into the thick of things; formerly major characters make Hitchcockian cameos. As befits its title, The Candy House is a novel of Easter eggs – of hidden in-joke treats. It begs to be read alongside its more extroverted sibling, and to consider, in the space between them, the deflations – incremental and otherwise – of the last decade.

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Apr 27, 2022

From ancient China to Marilyn Monroe – this fascinating history celebrates the joy of ‘bookhood’

One of the most familiar visual tropes to emerge from the pandemic has been that of Serious People seated in front of their bookshelves. Whether it’s a cabinet minister on television or an accountant working from home, the poetics of Zoom insist on a backdrop of titles composed of equal parts stuffy professional manual, well‑thumbed Penguin Classic and, for those who like to raise the stakes, last year’s International Booker prize shortlist. Books don’t just furnish a room, they semaphore to the world exactly how you yourself would like to be read.

In this brilliantly written account of the book-as-material-object, Emma Smith explains that people have been posing in front of their libraries ever since Gutenberg started cranking up the printing press. Before, in fact: one of her earliest revelations is that people in China and Korea were printing books several centuries before sluggish northern Europe got round to it. Still, one of the most deft proponents of the early “shelfie” was Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, also known as Madame de Pompadour, companion of Louis XV. In the 1750s, when Jeanne was making the tricky move from maîtresse-en-titre to femme savante, she enrolled her favourite painter, François Boucher, to manage the transformation. From now on he was to paint her either against a backdrop of crammed bookshelves or, better still, actually reading a book and looking thoughtful about it.

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