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Busman's holiday: The Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at University College London gets down and dirty
on 17 May 2014
NOT a 'have you read this' book, more of a 'why I like reading and what I get out of it' book - or what I call in my brief amazon.com review a series of sparkling meditations on reading. What follows is mainly polemic
Anti-evolutionary rear-guard action, the literalist's last stand, gained new life as religion appeared to be on its last legs - in the West, that is - and likewise, as the habit of reading (of a serious nature) comes under ever-increasing threat, we're swamped by book-porn. Why read about it when you could be at it? Because there's room for both, dummy. Don't let this one's hectoring title put you off. Neither didactic nor simplistic but enthusiastic, sporadically informative and surprisingly wide-ranging ('The nineteenth-century novel is to the hegemonic middle classes what the romance was to feudal aristocrats and the ballad to the peasantry' but also 'most books look better after seventy years than their owners'), this is not a book you would expect to provoke ire. It pissed off Tom Shone in the NYT Book Review mightily, though; he thought it élitist. For a high-flying don Sutherland's range strikes me as uncommonly eclectic - Grisham, Clancy ('verve'), Uris ('workmanlike practitioner': not, I think, faint praise) - and in fact an Oxford Companion to Popular Fiction is apparently in the works, but in any case without élites to lead us we would still be scrabbling around on the ground. Not that I'm taking sides now (would I do such a thing?) but for that alone Sutherland deserves at least **** - though the list of books at the end is just that, a list *BY TITLE* of books mentioned in the text (not necessarily favourably, and at least thrice giving away the plot device); how much better a simple author index would have been!
I was shocked to see Sutherland following Zadie Smith in using the French word hommage, italicised and all (p122), for English homage. Adding a redundant m amounts to sticking undignified 'aren't I pretentious' air quotes around a perfectly serviceable word dating back 800 years whose pronunciation is now in danger of going the way of niche, universally pronounced nitch within living memory (mine). Smith at least has the excuse of living in America, where they customarily pay homage to French-derived words (garage, perfume and culinary terms without number) by stressing the last syllable. To change the spelling, though, marks even an American out as both affected and ill-informed, and probably superficial and self-regarding too. But one cannot not grow fond of old John. Of the famous beginning to Anna Karenina he says 'it is manifestly not true'. 'Is not 'happy family', in Tolstoy's world.. a contradiction in terms?' The Boy Who Loved Books awaits..
* Writers who provoke ire should always be encouraged - in moderation. I shall never be able to read Terry Eagleton again after his Thomas Aquinas review last December. I'd like to kick him downstairs, knowing full well that is just the reaction he's out to provoke, damn his slippery hide