Sunday, 4 July 2010

I love you, Literary Review

The reason the Literary Review is great is that its book reviews address the question: do you, a reader, want to choose to read this book for pleasure? Academic reviews concentrate on the value of a book to academics who are users more than readers: some journals, like the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, project the attitude that reading is a duty, imposed on us by being the sort of terribly well-educated people that we are. But the Literary Review is interesting, and its reviews tend to be as much about the book's subject as the book itself. I suppose an author might feel a bit aggrieved if a review makes little mention of their book -- sometimes in the Literary Review judgements on the actual volume are limited to something like "this well-written but over-long book" -- but as a reader I like it when a reviewer tackles the interest of a book's subject. You can tell me that someone has written an excellent book on Pavel Florensky, for example, but I need some context to tell me why I should care about Pavel Florensky.

Pavel Florensky sounds absolutely fascinating: apparently he was a brilliant mathematician, physicist, and theologian; helped electrify Russia (turning up dressed as a priest to meetings with Trotsky); spent his time as a prisoner in an Arctic labour camp working out how to extract useful chemicals from sea water; and was a brilliant geologist who refused to prospect for gold on moral grounds. Furthermore he lived a good life, loved his family, confessed to crimes when interrogated by the NKVD so as to spare others from torture, and worked hard for his country despite persecution. He ended up in one of Stalin's mass graves and is a candidate for sainthood in the Russian Orthodox church. I know about this because of the June issue of the Literary Review, and I intend to read the biography at some point. (By Avril Pyman.) Also in the June issue are reviews of a biography of Cardinal Newman which makes him sound very interesting, and a book about the battle of Little Big Horn, both of which I might read if they come out in paperback. There's a piece by Diana Athill about the Edmund de Waal book on his inherited netsuke. There's also a review of a book by Paul Bloom on pleasure. I don't think I will read the book, but the review, by Michael Bywater, says some quite interesting things about the subject in general, and about what Bloom's book doesn't tackle. And there's a review of Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind which makes me feel that I really have to get to grips with her work at some point. I've always been daunted by her, because the archbishop of Canterbury reveres her intellect. The archbishop of Canterbury eats languages for breakfast and when given a sabbatical to refresh himself spiritually before the Lambeth conference spends it lightheartedly making a serious contribution to the study of Dostoyevsky. Marilynne Robinson sounds even tougher.

But it's not just about the books I decide to read, it's also about the books I don't. I read somewhere that art is reading books and going to the theatre and such, and culture is reading the reviews of books and theatre and such, and still being able to discuss them. It struck me the other day that although I have never read anything about the Dreyfus affair, I have read enough reviews of books about the Dreyfus affair to have a reasonable sense of what happened. You could see that as a bad thing, because strictly speaking it would be better if I had read and assimilated all the different books about it and come to my own conclusion (or even better, the actual sources). But what could be attacked as superficial knowledge could also be defended as a broad and persistent curiosity about the world and its history. And there are worse ways to be self-indulgent.

The closest parallel I can think of to the Literary Review's attitude to books is the attitude of Boing Boing to science. Boing Boing often has items about interesting new scientific or technological stuff just out of a sense that these things are genuinely exciting, and no one's duty. Hurray for enthusiasms! The world is wierd and complex in a good way.


  1. Pavel Florensky does indeed sound like a fascinating character. I may well have to get that biography. Thanks for putting me on to it!

  2. I think it'll be a while before I get round to reading it, partly because I prefer paperbacks where possible, as easier on the wrists. But I'm fascinated by people who have seen theological points in scientific discoveries. Apparently the thing that finally did for him in terms of the Soviet apparatus was something he wrote explaining the implications of quantum theory for free will. And the two things that suggest to me that he deserves a hearing about this are that a) he was very very clever and b) he lived a pretty good life. Interesting stuff.