My usual one-two combination of The London Review of Books and the TLS always has a huge amount of long, meaty, scholarly piece of literary journalism – that’s why I’ve been coming back to them every week since before most of you were born. And this last week was no exception, with plenty of great, long pieces on books both obscure and well-known.
But sometimes, in amongst the dinosaur-march of all those long pieces, there are scurrying little moments that really brighten the whole lunch, and they don’t often get the credit they deserve. It’s no easy thing to work a winning side-note or a funny bit into a piece that has to pass through the remorselessly humorless hands of an editor; writers who can manage it should get a bit of credit before their work is ground under in the constantly-turning wheel of the Penny Press.
Take the LRB, for example: in the middle of a very tough but very fair piece on Thomas Nagel’s skimpy new booklet-essay “Mind and Cosmos” (about as long as this Stevereads post), reviewer Peter Godfrey-Smith takes a second to mention Reginald Punnett’s 1915 book Mimicry in Butterflies – and call it “beautiful”! Anybody who’s read the book (and I now know there are at least two of us) would be momentarily ecstatic, and I was.
Or elsewhere in the same issue, when Adam Phillips is reviewing Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense and quips, “Spufford is preaching to the unconverted” – hee.
J.C., the mastermind behind the “NB” column in the TLS, can almost always be relied upon for such smile-inducing moments, and this last issue was no exception, talking about special Days commemorating famous people: “Usually, on a Day set aside for an important personage, something happens. People have a holiday or eat haggis.”
But to my mind, the best little moment of them all this time around came in that same issue of the TLS, in a brief review by Houman Barekat of The Notorious Sir John Hill … a review in which the burst of joy derives from one perfectly-chosen word. See if you can spot it:
It would do no great disservice to John Hill’s twenty-six-volume opus, The Vegetable System, to observe that its author was one of those unusual men whose greatest achievements make for the least interesting part of their story. Published in instalments between 1759 and 1775, the leguminous tome helped seal his reputation as a natural historian …
Hee. I’m not sure I’d have seen that particular opportunity, but I’m sure glad Barekat did!