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A Kind of Redemption

I’ve been a passionate reader all my life, be it of labels on jam jars or the small print on the back of tax forms, aged copies of free newspapers left on seats on the London Underground, Peter Rabbit or Plato. Reading is more than pleasure, it’s like breathing. Generally, though, I read for aesthetic reasons (literature, to enjoy the writer’s skill), to keep up (newspapers and periodicals) or for escape (thrillers, the blacker the better). Or that was true before my mother died.
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Posh but Down-to-Earth

Posh but Down-to-Earth

Recently, I noticed a rather irritating poster on the Underground proclaiming: ‘You never forget your first time.’ It was an advertisement for a villa holiday company – bizarrely – but the irritation I felt (since I am not annoyed by villa holidays per se) had to do with the too obvious double entendre. In fact, one does not forget the first time that one does quite a lot of things – seeing one’s name in print, for instance, or walking along Striding Edge, that most vertiginous of paths on to the top of Helvellyn – and certainly I have never forgotten the first time I read a gardening book.
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Oedipus Schmoedipus

Eighty years ago Ian Suttie, a Scottish psychiatrist, wrote The Origins of Love and Hate, in which he fiercely criticized Freud’s theories. Freud saw human beings as ‘isolates wrestling with their instincts’, Suttie saw them as dreading isolation, ‘striving from the first to relate to [the] mother, and [their] future mental health turning on the success or failure of this first relationship’. Love was social rather than sexual in its biological function, thought Suttie, and was derived from a ‘self-preservation instinct rather than the genital appetite’.
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Made in Siberia

Made in Siberia

Every season a couple of wonderful biographies emerge whose reviews and sales might lead one to believe that they will stay bestsellers for ever. A year or two later they are in no greater demand than thousands of other backlist titles. Examples of this might be Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana or David Gilmour’s Curzon. Both were rightly acclaimed, but after the flurry of reviews, after Christmas had come and gone, they joined others on the shelves as definitive works on rather specialized subjects whose future sales will be steady, but modest. This is not to derogate the books: it is just what happens.
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My First Gethsemane

My First Gethsemane

Thirty-nine years ago I came to work at Heywood Hill’s bookshop in Curzon Street. Between school and Cambridge, I had worked for three months at Heffers, where Mr Reuben Heffer had cannily put me in the Science Department. It was the only part of the shop where I wouldn’t read the stock. This could hardly be called a preparation for the sophisticated carriage trade in the West End, and I had little inkling of what would be expected of me. At my interview with Handasyde Buchanan, Heywood’s long-term partner and my future boss, it appeared that he considered himself the doyen of London booksellers and that he was pleased that, like him, I had had a Classical education.
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Maxwell’s World

A curious thing: the New York literary world is smaller than the London literary world. It also has a strange feeling of being more old-fashioned. I was edited there by the legendary Joe Fox. I don’t think he liked me, but we would have dinner at a hotel restaurant, the last place where he could smoke in New York, and talk about great writers, including William Maxwell. Joe Fox died at his desk in Random House behind a huge pile of copies of the New York Times, cigarette on his lips.
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The Trouble with Idealism

The Trouble with Idealism

It was towards the end of his long life, after revolutionalizing many other aspects of design, that William Morris embarked on his ‘typographical adventure’ at the Kelmscott Press. Though it survived for less than eight years and was wound up shortly after his death in 1896, it managed to produce 53 publications, including many of his own writings and a celebrated edition of Chaucer in a highly distinctive dark, ‘Gothic’ style. Kelmscott provided the crucial impetus for the four leading private presses considered in an excellent new series from the British Library and Oak Knoll Press.
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Tooth and Claw

Tooth and Claw

The Red Hourglass, a debut volume by a writer called Gordon Grice, explores a fundamental premise. ‘We want the world to be an ordered room,’ its author writes, ‘but in the corner there hangs an untidy web.’ Within lurks ‘an irreducible mystery, a motiveless evil in Nature’. This was the idea that had captured the imagination of the movie director. And that was the idea that had trapped me, too, the first time I came across the book. I had picked it up from a literary editor’s review pile and started to leaf, distractedly, through it. Half an hour later, I was sitting on the floor, transfixed.
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A Perfect Nightmare

A Perfect Nightmare

In 1935, Denton Welch – then an art student at Goldsmith’s College – was knocked off his bike on a busy road just outside Bromley. He spent over a year in hospital and was permanently weakened by his injuries. He died thirteen years later at the age of 33, leaving behind him a few strange but compelling books – all of which obsessively pick over Denton’s recollections of his life before the accident. They culminate in A Voice through a Cloud, a nightmarish account of his months in hospitals and convalescent homes in southern England. He died before he finished it and it ends, with poignant abruptness, in the middle of a paragraph, with Denton sitting, uncertain and in pain, in his doctor’s car which is parked outside a bungalow in Broadstairs.
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Northern Lights

Arctic Dreams is much more than a travel book; its subtitle is Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, which causes one to raise an eyebrow. Desire? What does the man mean? To be honest I am still not too sure, but by now I am sufficiently beguiled by its author not to care too much. Suffice it that he takes you on a journey to black seas in which float icebergs the size of cathedrals, to the campsites of Inuit who died fifteen hundred years ago, and to endless plains where snow geese rise like twists of smoke; that he conjures up for you the intimate presence of narwhals, polar bears, seals, whales, muskoxen.
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The View from Denestornya

Count Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy is a long novel about the follies, beauties and shortcomings of Hungarian society in the decade leading up to the First World War. He wrote it during the 1930s, when the disastrous outcomes of that war were still developing. Nostalgia may have been an active ingredient of this project, but Banffy’s purpose was to record rather than gild what had been lost. One of his conscious motivations was to help future Hungarians understand their past.
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