Paperbacks:<br></br>Old Gods Almost Dead; <br></br>The Man Who Lost His Language; <br></br>Oxford Guide to World English; <br></br>The Way of a Ship; <br></br>The Constants of Nature

By Christopher Hirst
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The Independent Culture

Old Gods Almost Dead, Stephen Davis
Aurum, £9.99, 593pp

Despite its tombstone-like appearance, this biography of the Rolling Stones (the title comes from the fine Robert Graves poem "Outlaws") is a snappy and enjoyable read, provided you ignore a series of minor errors. The author, an assiduous New Englander, is not as familiar with the old country as he thinks. In the Sixties, the Marquee club was not in Oxford Street but Wardour Street. In their pre-Stones days, Mick and Keith would not have travelled by train "from Dartford to Victoria station". The terminus from Dartford is Charing Cross, a sight handier for Mick's brief spell at the LSE. On the plus side, it is pleasing to learn that Keith made his first major performance in Westminster Abbey, singing at the Coronation. For the next 400 pages, Davis enjoyably pursues the familiar story of excess, addiction and egomania. The structure of the book reflects the band's increasingly arid longevity, as edgy creativity was replaced by flashy showmanship. The last quarter-century occupies one-fifth of the pages, with Davis panning album after album until Bridges to Babylon in 1997, "an unexpected work of art". In one respect, the Stones never fail to delight. Their quotes are always a joy. Watts on Wood: "He's not at all sensible, Ronnie, it's not his role. He has the attention span of a gnat." The great Keith on Mick: "I'm always sorry for Mick's women, because they end up crying on my shoulder. And I'm like, 'How do you think I feel? I'm stuck with him.' "

The Man Who Lost His Language, Sheila Hale
Penguin, £6.99, 306pp

On 30 July 1992, the historian Sir John Hale suffered a stroke that robbed him of his powers of communication. His wife's account is partly a study of aphasia and partly "a kind of love-letter" to a remarkable man. Even with a wide circle of influential friends, Sheila Hale was initially frustrated in her effort to find professionals who would take an interest. Although her husband was eventually treated by excellent therapists, she remains critical of the lack of provision for rehabilitation. Her profoundly touching book is also an angry rebuke at the "degree of neglect and brutality" she witnessed.

Oxford Guide to World English, Tom McArthur
Oxford University Press, £9.99, 501pp

Although endowed with a chewy academic crust, touching on such arcane notions as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the rich filling of this astonishingly comprehensive book is packed with pleasure. Starting in London, McArthur pursues the cross-currents of English as it spreads and transmutes throughout the world. Such is the democratic appropriation of the language that Cockney expressions ("Tewwin abah the technicaw cowwedge") are almost as exotic as Melanesian Pidgin, which includes such terms as "bagarup" (accident, from bugger-up) and "bulsitin" (deceive, from bullshitting).

The Way of a Ship, Derek Lundy
Vintage, £7.99, 447pp

Even those without a drop of saltwater in their veins will find themselves enthralled by Derek Lundy's seafaring epic. His idea of recreating the experience of his great-great uncle sailing from Carrickfergus to California as a greenhorn on a square-rigger was a risky one, but Lundy's depth of knowledge, sympathetic imagination and superb writing bring both ship and crew wonderfully to life. From the moment Benjamin Lundy first climbs the 165ft rigging to the terrifying experience of rounding the "Bloody Horn", we are utterly swept up. Our maritime forebears were drunken, foul-mouthed supermen.

The Constants of Nature, John D Barrow
Vintage, £8.99, 352pp

After his Book of Nothing, the prolific Gresham Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge now tackles the most significant numbers in the universe. Engagingly, Barrow searches high and low for analogies that elucidate the concepts of theoretical physics. Picasso's Portrait of Dora Maar illustrates a chapter on multiple dimensions. Lord Peter Wimsey is quoted in support of Eddington's work on a unified theory of nature. Barrow explains nature's constants as "barcodes of ultimate reality". Simple. But be warned, much of this book will be indigestible to the mathematically ignorant.

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