Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Stefan Collini: Common Reading

Critics, Historians, Publics

When I started reading this book, I somehow assumed it would be a general history of ‘common readers’ in the Woolfian sense – sophisticated non-academic critics, or what Collini, in one of these essays, calls ‘tweed-jacketed men of letters’. (That would actually be a book I’d love to read, so if anybody knows of one like it, do let me know.) Common Reading opens with an essay on Cyril Connolly – a tweed-jacketed man of letters if there ever was one! – so at first I thought this was exactly the kind of book I was reading; but then I jumped to the last essay, ‘HiEdBiz’, about the state – and purpose – of university education in contemporary Britain, and excellent piece though it is, it seemed to belong to a completely different book. But the further I read on, I understood the common theme wasn’t ‘common reading’ so much as ‘cultural mediation’ (is that a real term?) – more specifically, the kind of writers, critics and historians, who write for an intended audience of non-specialist ‘common readers’. It’s rather surprising to think how much power such writers wield once they’re accepted as authorities on their respective subjects. Or the institutions they work for, for that matter: from ‘HiEdBiz’ I walked away with the sense that the idea of higher education might just make more of a difference than higher education itself.

(Chalk it up to my blindness, by the way: the jacket copy does say, ‘Collini focuses on critics and historians who wrote for a non-specialist readership’. . .)

The book is divided into two parts: ‘Writing Lives’ and ‘Reading Matters’. ‘Writing Lives’ deals with the careers, lives, and works of various critics and historians, some of them less academically inclined, some of them more so – from Connolly to E.H. Carr, from Rebecca West to Edmund Wilson. Common Reading is a collection of previously published essays and reviews, and I must say some of these might have been left out or rewritten; some of the ‘Writing Lives’ in particular read a bit too summary-like, and I felt I would probably have got more insight into certain writers by – well – reading these writers’ own works.

The best pieces, however, were not only insightful (like the ones on Connolly, E.H. Carr, and Arthur Bryant) but also very entertaining. I especially enjoyed the piece on A.L. Rowse, whose diaries went straight to my must-read list – and this passage made me laugh out loud:

Indeed, read in bulk, the diaries suggest that writing was Rowse’s downfall in the way drink is for others. He wrote all morning, and sometimes had to retire to bed in the afternoon to sleep it off. He wrote heavily before dinner, and sometimes for long after, concluding with a stiff shot of his diary as a nightcap. Even during a bout of heavy writing on one of his books, he would tipple at reviews (a tell-tale sign); he was a compulsive letter-writer, knocking back slugs of correspondence when in bare hotel rooms; and if nothing else was available, he resorted to making notes for future full-length diary entries, the bedrock of addiction, the British Sherry of the hardened writer. It hardly comes as a surprise to learn that he was a teetotaller: he didn’t need it.

Rowse was also a man disappointed in the world he had to live in. ‘The question becomes, then,’ he wrote, ‘how to live one’s life in such a civilization. The answer is – to live it as an inner exile . . . One becomes a constant watcher from outside, for which state all my life has been a preparation.’ Most of these case studies actually have a similar whiff of anachronism, disappointment or nostalgia, though the quality of the anachronism or nostalgia varies: the nostalgia can have a right-wing flavour, like Roger Scruton’s, or a decidedly left-wing one, like E.P. Thompson’s; the writer in question may be hampered by the nostalgia, or profit from it like Arthur Bryant.

Most of these writers had an idea(l) of England specifically, and many of them seemed to feel that there was once a mythical ‘general reader’ (a very English general reader, at that) who was interested in serious ideas and serious literature, and strove to have a general understanding of these things instead of a more esoteric, specialised, academic one. In ‘Reading Matters’, Collini locates this fabled age of an ‘integrated reading public’ in the Victorian era. Other fascinating essays in the same vein are about general cultural periodicals (which, according to Collini, have always been seen to be dying), authors as celebrities, working-class autodidacticism, and how 20th-century literary criticism established itself as the central mode of social criticism (‘everything that was ring-fenced within the elevated category of “literature” was thereby presumed to possess this distinctive kind of wholeness: criticism then became less a matter of discriminating better from worse, and more a process of identifying and displaying the mechanisms by which all genuinely “literary” works embody this transcendent formal power’).

But to me, the most fascinating pieces in the book were probably the one about the ‘respectable nerdiness’ of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (to which Collini has contributed), and – especially – the one sub-titled ‘Biography and Intellectual Elites’. I quote my favourite passage from the latter:

In its most conventional guise, biography participates indirectly in the nostalgia boom. Reading about the details of the everyday lives of exceptional people, people who by background or achievement lived exceptionally comfortable and well-connected lives, evidently has some of the same attractions as costume dramas and country-house kitchens. Biography can easily collude with snobbery, allowing the contemporary reader to keep company with, even to identify with, an altogether wealthier, more famous, and more colourful crowd from the past than actual life yields with the present. This must partly account for the thousands and thousands of pages that read as though written by a conscientious but sadly unstimulated voyeur: ‘He had lunch with Vanessa and Clive; Roger and Lytton were there, disputing fiercely about mushrooms. In the evening he dined with Maynard and Lydia; she wore her fox stole throughout the evening, he spoke at length about German reparations. The next day he went down to Sussex . . .’.

As a biography-lover, my initial response was to splutter an indignant ‘That’s not it at all!’ and then add, a little sheepishly, ‘Well, yes . . . probably a bit. Come to think of it, you’re right. But what’s wrong with that?’ That sums up my response to the entire book: much of the time, I found myself agreeing with Collini’s conclusions, and still stubbornly siding with the nostalgia-ridden and hopelessly anachronistic. And somehow, I can’t help thinking Collini himself might be a little bit wistful about not being in the right place and the right time to lead the life of a Cyril Connolly, himself.

Oxford University Press  2008  hardback  368 pp.  ISBN: 9780199296781

9 comments on “Stefan Collini: Common Reading

  1. Moira
    August 15, 2008

    Sounds like a bit of a hotch-potch of a book. I wonder who it’s aimed at?

    Interesting review, though … LOVED the description of A L Rowse. (I met ALR a couple of times during my Cornwall Years … a courteous old gent, but somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun.)

  2. Ann Darnton (Table Talk)
    August 16, 2008

    It would be the Rowse piece that would appeal most to me as well, although I have to say the idea of the whole book is intriguing. When I was a student Rowse’s book on Elizabethan England were seen as the final word, but recently there has been a re-evaluation and a downgrading of his scholarship. Some of his ideas were a bit ‘off the wall’, but they never lacked imagination.

  3. kirstyjane
    August 17, 2008

    This sounds excellent. The paragraph about biography you quoted made me shudder, it was so familiar; I think I have already said here that this kind of biography drives me insane. (And one of these days I must have a rant about the cult of the flippin’ Mitfords).

  4. Jackie
    August 19, 2008

    It seems as if this book might be intended as a starting point or map of the general direction a reader might wish to go in. A series of appetizers, almost. The excerpt about Rowse was great, I’m still chuckling about the style. This would be a nice book to dip into in a random way, rather than read straight through.
    What is the picture on the cover? It almost looks like people waiting in line at a bakery.That can’t be right, can it?

  5. Leena
    August 20, 2008

    Oi, Kirsty! First the Romanovs, now the Mitfords? Is nothing sacred?? 😉

    Moira, that’s a very good question and I’m not sure I’ve got an answer. The book’s ‘tone’ doesn’t seem too academic – but I do wonder if the topics covered would be so very fascinating to the ‘general reader’ in question. It is a ‘series of appetisers’ as Jackie put it – but for whom…?

    Most of the pieces were originally published in the Times Literary Supplement and other publications… so I suppose the book would be ideal for the ‘typical TLR reader’ 😉

    Moira and Ann, I must read something of Rowse’s now!

  6. Leena
    August 20, 2008

    Forgot to add – that’s (almost) exactly what the picture is, Jackie! The jacket flap says it’s The Café (Café Conte, London), 1937-8, by Graham Bell.

  7. Jackie
    August 21, 2008

    Oh hey, I guessed correctly. But what a slightly odd choice for a cover of a book about books. Unless the pastry/food is meant as a metaphor?

  8. Leena
    August 21, 2008

    Very likely! Or perhaps only common people visit cafeterias? Hmmm.

    Perhaps there’s more symbolism in the choice of the artist himself:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_Bell_%28artist%29

  9. itchy left palm
    November 3, 2011

    At least some bloggers can write. Thanks for this blog post!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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