Category Archives: Book Review

Philistinism Redux

Review – The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts by Sohrab Ahmari

Identity politics, that very modern ideological constellation, with its fixation on race, class and gender, has migrated from academia into the arts. Queer theory, feminist readings, post-colonial studies – all these have carved out significant positions at the heart of the art world. Many artists and ‘creatives’ aspire to these doctrines; they increasingly govern the propagation of culture as well as new criticism of canonical art. Such things matter more than could be expected. Continue reading

Memory and Matteo Ricci

Jonathan Spence’s book The Death of Woman Wang is an entrancing assessment of provincial China. It weaves together the stories of individuals, some of high rank, some freshly rescued from obscurity, with those of myth and legend, creating an absorbing, enriching portrait of a nation and of an era. In The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Spence takes a slightly different tack. Again his subject is China, but this time, rather than attempting only to look at the country from within, he incorporates the perspective of those who came from without. The eponymous subject of this work was a Jesuit priest from Italy, a keen proselytiser, and one of the pioneering Western missionaries sent to China to spread Christianity among its vast population. Continue reading

Hack Work

Review – The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918 by D. J. Taylor

Is there such thing as a presiding literary culture today? Such is the implicit question of the final chapters of D. J. Taylor’s The Prose Factory, a history of literary life in this country since the end of the Great War. Surveying the ruins of the contemporary publishing industry, where technology has aided the self-publisher and self-publicist and little else, he concludes that there is not. Instead, there could soon be two competing literary cultures – one distinctly and deliberately highbrow, a culture of expensive hardbacks and fashionably small circulations, and the other a culture of genre fiction, ghost-written autobiographies and discounted bestsellers. Continue reading

Another Kind of Air War

Review – The Other Air Force by Matt Sienkiewicz

America, Matt Sienkiewicz asserts at the beginning of his new book The Other Air Force, ‘is not a subtle nation’. In many ways – religious, political, cultural – the United States is seen as the enemy of nuance; its values are perceived to be bold, brash and often in conflict with those of older societies and older systems, in Europe and the world over. Continue reading

Bilingual Writing and Britain’s Place in the World

In the aftermath of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, a fairly momentous event in the history of the United Kingdom, it seems important – or at least valuable – to look at some reasonably basic things about our country. Many of the assumptions and fundamental preconceptions which we in Britain exhibit can be traced to two things: how we see ourselves, and how we view the rest of the world. In reality, those two issues are really one – the global and the national inseparable in an age of increasing and inescapable interdependence, in economic terms, with regard to political realities, and even in matters cultural. Continue reading

Samuel Johnson and the Vanity of Human Wishes

Samuel Johnson, the Dr Johnson of national memory, is primarily known for his wit. His epigrams are hardly common currency, but they do have a certain appeal – and a certain constituency. Who has not heard ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ or ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ (a particular favourite of Boris Johnson) deployed in conversation by someone altogether too keen on appearing intelligent? Continue reading