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on 7 May 2013
Each year-end, The Economist runs a special double edition to tide us over the festive season. It features, in amongst the usual news coverage, numerous learned and erudite articles covering a plethora of subjects, covering arcane zones of history, food, culture, politics, the human condition and more. This publication is my benchmark for general interest magazines. It was also my benchmark for judging this collection of essays by the distinguished historian Eric Hobsbawm who, despite his Marxist views, received a laudatory obituary from The Economist itself, the house magazine of liberal capitalism.
Unfortunately, my expectations, based upon his history books, were not fulfilled.
It's quite difficult to specify why. The fact that I hadn't heard of some of the people who are his subjects almost certainly had no bearing, nor that some of his subject matter, particularly opera, exists in an area I normally label "not interested". There are ways these things can be interesting. Here it's hard work.
Sometimes, certainly, Hobsbawm seems to have been showing off a little, scattering obscure quotations in amongst his text, but it's not their obscurity but their failure to add much that stands out. He makes a good point about our ability still to be able to read a printed text published in the 17th century and our inability to read an electronic one produced less than twenty years ago due to our loss of the appropriate software (I'm personally struggling to retrieve files from the mid-nineties in Word!), but it only needed saying once. This and other repetitions are due, of course, to the nature of many of the essays as originally talks given at the Salzburg festival, where his audience from year to year may not notice. His reading audience will be more aware.
The book does, fortunately, have its moments: two consecutive essays, on Public Religion, discussing inter alia issues around the rise of fundamentalism, and Art and Revolution, addressing the reactionary attitude of the Bolsheviks towards art, count as Economist-worthy material, as does his take on The American Cowboy.
Overall, however, somewhat disappointing.