Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Only secondhand books give you this

Tipped inside the inside cover of the first volume of Macaulay's History of England:

It's a five-volume edition, in all, so it would have been a handsome present, especially when books were scarce. This one is half-wrecked from reading, or at least handling; the others would be at least one condition category up. The text of the dedication, as you might just make out, is:

To Stan.

"I cannot allow other common friendships to be placed in the same line with ours. I have as much knowledge of them as another and of the most perfect of their kind, but I should not advise anyone to measure them with the same rule; he would be much mistaken. In those other friendships one has to walk with one's bridle in one's hand, prudently and cautiously: the knot is not tied so tightly but that it will cause some misgiving --- --- But in the other kind where we exhibit the very depths of our heart and make no reservations, truly all the springs of action must be perfectly 'clear and true'." (MONTAIGNE)

from Dicky, APRIL '45.

The date finishes it off nicely, I think. You can imagine some sort of pilot-and-rear-gunner scenario -- in comments, if you like.

[Macaulay, History of England From The Accession of James II, London, 1849-1861. Shameful to admit, but I'm just reading back to the point I'd reached last time I mentioned it. It'll be clear soon enough whether I've jinxed it again.]

Monday, August 28, 2006

Bank holiday cat picture

Meet Hodge, a very fine cat indeed. Explanation, location, inscription, photo credit etc here. Previous incoherent enthusiasm for source here.

Arnold Bennett as Edwardian QVC presenter

I think it will be agreed the cost of this library is surprisingly small. By laying out the sum of sixpence a day for three years you may become the possessor of a collection of books which, for range and completeness in all its branches of literature, will bear comparison with libraries far more imposing, more numerous, and more expensive.

Send no money now. Return within 90 days for a full refund.

This is Literary Taste: How to Form It, published by Bennett in 1909. It has gone through seven editions by my copy, dated February 1914. It suggests that, quite apart from his novels, Bennett could have made a fortune writing self-help books or flogging Chambers' Cyclopedia of English Litearature door to door.

On the one hand, he is too scrupulous to suggest a single path. His first warning is: "People who regard literary taste simple as an accomplishment, and literature simply as a distraction, will never truly succeed either in acquiring the accomplishment or in using it half-acquired as a distraction". His first advice is: "Buy! Surround yourself with volumes, as handsome as you can afford. And for reading, all that I will now particularly enjoin is a general and inclusive tasting, in order to attain a sort of familiarity with the look of 'literature in all its branches'." He takes pleasure, extracted with effort from acknowledged classics, as his guiding pedagogical principle.

On the other hand, he is too canny to pass up the sales potential of "DETAILED INSTRUCTIONS FOR COLLECTING A COMPLETE LIBRARY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE". The justification is peremptory: "I began by urging the constant purchase of books -- any books of approved quality, without reference to their immediate bearing upon your particular case. The moment has come to inform you plainly that a bookman is, amongst other things, a man who possesses many books. A man who does not possess many books is not a bookman."

With the help of a tame retailer, "my old and valued friend, Charles Young, head of the firm of Lambley & Co., booksellers, South Kensington", he compiles "a library containing the complete works of the supreme geniuses, representative important works of all the first-class men in all departments, and specimen works of all the men of second rank whose reputation is really a living reputation to-day", specifying editions and prices. It runs from Chaucer (and a little before) to George Gissing, excluding translations and works not in English. For 337 volumes, the cost is £26 14s 7d, of which £14 17s 7d is the copyright-heavy 19th Century. "I am fairly sure," he says, "that the majority of people will be startled at the total inexpensiveness of it."

£26 14s 7d comes out at about £1,800 in today's money using the RPI inflation calculator at EH.net; and many of his volumes are one-shilling Everymans, for which you might struggle to find an equivalent at £3.50 today. Dover Thrift and Wordsworth Editions could take you some way, I suppose.

I love Bennett's tone -- intimate, clairvoyant and stern -- although there's every chance another reader would want to throttle him. He's your friend; he knows what you're thinking; and he can fix it. And I take some comfort, decline-of-literary-culture-wise, in his description of the crapness of the market for poetry in his time. "If the sales of modern poetry, distinctly labelled as such, were to cease entirely to-morrow not a publisher would fail; scarcely a publisher would be affected; and not a poet would die -- for I do not belive that a single modern English poet is living to-day on the current proceeds of his verse."

Given more enterprise I'd work through the list -- two volumes a week for three years, I'm fairly sure that most people will be startled at the total unambitiousness -- but enterprise is not something you'll find much of around here.

Literary Taste is available as a Project Gutenberg e-text.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Service update

My clippings file blog now runs up to this March, and has a whizzy new highlights selection linked down the right hand side. You never know who might have an eye on you - especially once you've deleted the stats counter for being too depressing.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Another book I'll have to buy

While classical texts and Guardian headlines are the subject, I appear to have missed a good one yesterday, despite enjoying the article it was meant to attract me to: "Honey, I'm Homer", for David McKie on Samuel Butler's The Authoress of the Odyssey. McKie hits off Butler's can-this-be-serious tone excellently, and this bit seems horribly plausible:

Today, to judge from the Notebooks, he would have probably made a fortune, perhaps as a house vituperationist for the Daily Mail, or as a telly pundit. He delighted in snappy inversions of popular tenets - "An honest God's the noblest work of man" - and overheard oddities - "At a funeral, the undertaker came up to a man and said to him: 'If you please, sir, the corpse's brother would be happy to take a glass of sherry with you'."

I'm not sure, though, that his account captures quite how funny, or how cuckoo-bananas, The Authoress of the Odyssey is.

Butler almost certainly did think Gladstone used Homer as as basis for "excessive pontification". After all, he hated Gladstone. He boasts in his notebooks of turning a servant against him. But this didn't stop him drawing largely from Gladstone's already archaic scholarship, in place of later writers who didn't moralise so much.

In Authoress, he accepts serenely many of Gladstone's moralising readings, but blames them on the writer having been young, female, priggish and without real knowledge of the world, the ancient-Sicilian equivalent of a vicar's daughter. (Of course, Butler was a vicar's son.) He makes her speciality jokes -- delightful little feminine ironies at the expense of masculine heroism. He is breathtakingly sexist, even in his praise.

The drive that made Butler's Homer criticism fun to read is the same one that stopped it connecting with the scholarship of his day, even as a provocation. It rests on intuiting a character for the author of each book (the Iliad was by a cynical old Trojan gentleman) and then remaking everything to fit the intentions, secret biases and flaws of the writers he has invented. David McKie credits Butler with pointing towards the "compound" Homer, the by-committee version already fashionable in his day. But that was completely against his way of reading.

One final revelation I'm deeply grateful for: The Authoress of the Odyssey is back in print, and has been for two years, with a university outfit called Bristol Phoenix Press. That's another £20 gone, and when I finally get to reread the bugger doubtless everything I have said above will be wrong. Now can we have The Humour of Homer, please, Bristol Pheonix Press? Please...

(There's no Project Gutenberg version of Authoress, if you were wondering, despite a full set of his not-very-religious religious works.)

A "Neophiliacs" moment

The headline on page 29 of today's Guardian asks: "Has Coke become the new McDonald's?"

The answer, according to the text, is no:

When self-described anarchists interrupted the carrier of the Olympic torch on route to Turin ahead of this year's winter games, it was not the athlete's running shoes they objected to, it was the presence of Coca-Cola, which had spent $66m (£35m) to become the main sponsor. Coke is the new Nike.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

At long last Loeb

Slate has a late but good addition to the hoopla surrounding the 500th volume in the Loeb Classical Library, the venerable series of Latin and Greek texts with facing translations. Good because the author, Emily Wilson, actually has something amusing to say about Quintillian's Lesser Declamations, with facing translation by H. Shackleton Bailey, and because (not unrelatedly) she's a working classicist with intelligent doubts about the sort of dilletantism the series enables:

I still wonder whether we really should be welcoming these splendid new translations with open arms. I, for one, would be extremely wary of recommending a Loeb in an undergraduate class in which the students were expected to read the original Latin or Greek. The temptation to rely too heavily on the translation would be all the greater now that the translations are so much better than they used to be.

This is surely a decision that makes itself. You don't have to recommend Loebs. Where there are undergraduates expected to read Latin and Greek, there will be at least one bookshop with a wall of the things. Even if your classics department is too small to make your town a Loeb-rich environment, word will get around. Some things are too useful not to hear about. Your students will find them and crib. And if you haven't recommended them, then any moderately conscientious student will crib thoroughly enough to give the impression that they didn't crib.

The worse worry, well expressed higher up the article, is that the Loebs can serve a culture with no place for the more than moderately conscientious. Mastering the crib is as far as you're encouraged to go. Indeed, you may receive a gold star for getting that far. Googling around this point, I found that the Weekly Standard considers Loebs to "certify seriousness". It's the handsome covers that do it, apparently.

Back when I dreamed of being serious about such things, it was the Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliotheca Oxoniensis that certified seriousness: hyper-reliable texts, no English even in the notes, and a cover style that makes a Loeb look modernist. I never managed them. But even a straight English translation was more heavyweight than a Loeb, provided it wasn't a Penguin.

Loeb bonus: Harvard UP's publicists, otherwise pretty hot on this one, seem nonetheless to have missed the 90th birthday of one of Latin literature's most-used cribs: H. Rushton Fairclough's Virgil. Or maybe they're saving the champagne for the second volume's 90th, in two years' time.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Question of the week

"...when did you last enjoy a thriller you thoroughly understood?" -- Michael Wood

Grudging steps towards convention

The New Yorker does not permit itself a masthead listing editorial staff. That would be unconscionably vulgar, and perhaps uncomfortably long. It does now venture a brief collection of notes on contributors, which mainly act as the same sort of status indicator. Result: some of the most sublimely circular and uninformative sentences in print today. From the August 7 and 14 issue, I particularly like...

Sasha Frere-Jones (Pop Music, p. 90) writes the pop-music column for the magazine.

The birth of modern political journalism (with a note on how it might die)

The text of today's sermon, like so many of the others recently, is from C.E. Montague. In this case, A Hind Let Loose (1910), his first novel, a farce about crappy provincial journalism. George Roads, a rising press baron, is talking to an unimportant interlocutor about the town's two newspapers, the Tory Warder and the Liberal Stalwart. I have made a snip in the middle, indicated by three dots.

"Still at it, ain't they?"

"At what?"

"Readying folk to read anything else they can get, to be rid of 'em. Bless you, these old party papers! Party! Good Lord!"

"'Party!' says Burke, 'is-'"

"Burke! I dare say. Some Fenian. Tell you, the thing's played out. Why, look about you; take a business man, average business man. He's got no party; not such a fool. He's fluid, not frozen all up. First this way a bit, then that way a bit - that's him. And d'you tell me he doesn't get up, every morning, fair itching to be rubbed a way no paper in this place has ever rubbed him yet? Kept in touch with - that's what he wants to be."

"What's 'kept in touch with'?"

"Told he's right." Roads' audience grew; his audiences had a way of growing...

"What would you pay," Roads pursued, with a corresponding rise of voice, "to be told, first thing when you got down to breakfast you were drunk last night, or you revoked, or ate with a knife, or something? That's what they call the game, I s'pose, these party papers. Why, look at the last war. Do you folks really want to be told a war's wrong when their blood's up? Or right, a year after, when they're sick of it? That's what they do, between 'em, these papers - blackguard their own customer, turn about; soon as one shift knocks off work at saying the country's a fool, t'other'll come on."

If you detect a pre-echo of the Daily Mail's Iraq policy, you should be warned that "Roads" is not a synonym for Harmsworth; the early career Montague gives him is much closer to the Hulton clan, which would make the half-penny morning paper he's planning the Daily Dispatch. And no one needs to make satirical points against the Daily Dispatch any more.

On the other hand, Roads' reader-frottage approach to editing is the foundation of much modern journalism; papers and writers vary according to who they try to rub. This may be an underestimated driver of newspaper resentment of blogs; it is galling to hear populist rhetoric from writers who can get away with rubbing far smaller groups of people than you. Anyone can be a blogger, true; but good blogs, good political blogs particularly, tend to assume a level of knowledge and a precision of partisanship that no one who needs to appeal to a newspaper-sized audience will dare. Homework assignment: rework the Long Tail thesis to fit what's happening to political writing, bearing in mind that the money's more in the patronage and commissions attracted by blog reputation than it is in AdSense, assuming there's any money at all.

Monday, August 07, 2006


On Sunday, Test Match Special had a series of distressed e-mails from readers who had found themselves seated in the West Stand at Headingley, had discovered that it was neither quiet nor sober, and had come over all Feedback about it.

They followed up by sending a reporter into the stand to interview several families and peaceable spectators -- all of whom said they loved it -- and a couple of pissed men in fancy dress, who expressed an unsurprising enthusiasm for dressing up and getting pissed. Then back to the commentary box, where Jonathan Agnew declared in his most serious voice that both lovers and haters of the stand would now be more convinced.

The next morning’s Guardian over-by-over also discussed the issue. It produced somewhat different findings. First this:

"I saw my first live Test match yesterday and really enjoyed the day," writes Nicky Glover. "The atmosphere was fantastic and I was impressed with the good atmosphere between the English and Pakistan supporters - there was the occasional dodgy chorus of 'Stand up if you wear a dress' which I couldn't help chuckling at - I was just wondering if the Pakistan supporters who were there thought this was a bit of fun/ good natured banter or if they found this offensive?" Well?

Then this:

"I'm Pakistani and was up at the match on Saturday, great day out," says Sayed ZA Shah. "Three of us were the only Pakistanis in the whole West Stand, but the fight between Hulk Hogan, Mr T, the Hulk and David Hasselhoff was one of the finest moments of comic genius I have ever witnessed. Fancy dress day well worth checking out at a Test match."

Lots to be said for both outlets, obviously, but which would you rather have ten pints with?

Death, sex, sandwiches

John Harvey's Resnick novels had proper characters, convincing and involving police-procedure plots, and an acute sense of place. They had, in general, good clean prose. (True, the first page of Rough Treatment has a fat man move with surprising lightness, but what else is a plus-sized burglar to do?) For Nottingham readers, however, they had one other decisive virtue: cafe recommendations. In almost every novel our finicky Polish detective would disappear into some little place in the inner city or the Victoria Centre market. Many of them proved to exist and to be as good as billed.

I've just had my first encounter with the new Harvey series character, Frank Elder -- his second appearance, Ash and Bone. And I must say I was worried. He conducts many of his meetings in Starbucks. But we are saved. There is a cameo appearance for Resnick, with this outcome:

The cafe was French, a small patesserie set back from the main road that ran immediately south from the station. There were a few tables on the pavement, maybe a half-dozen more inside. Bread, criossants, baguettes and a gleaming espresso machine. Two women of a certain age, smartly dressed, sat near the rear window drinking coffee; a silver-haired man, camel coat folded over the back of his chair, was reading Le Monde and eating a croque-monsieur. Elder, who had used St Pancras enough over the years, had no idea it was there...

'How did you know about this?' Elder said, looking round.

'Charlie told me about it.'

I think I know where he's thinking of, and I haven't gone in, and I will.

[Ash and Bone, John Harvey, London, 2005. More thrillerish than the Resnicks -- that's the way the market's going, apparently -- with what seems like a greater number of splashy plots, and more sex. But that could be my faulty memory. The structure resists tidiness nicely, and the social set-up feels more solid and plausible than any policeman-out-of-retirement novel has a right to. I'll be reading the others.]

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sorry, but this imaginary relationship is doomed

Consecutive adverts in the present LRB personals column:

I celebrated my fortieth birthday last week by cataloguing my collection of bird feeders. Next year I’m hoping for sexual intercourse. And a cake. Join my invite mailing list at box no. 14/04. Man.

No beards. F, 38. Box no. 14/05