BOOKS READ November 2018

Shaun Bythell: The Diary of a Bookseller, London, Profile Books, 2017

Jewish bachelor Shaun Bythell runs a second hand book shop in Wigtown, a small Scottish town with a reputation for second hand books in the tradition of Hay on Wye but fewer shops. Bythell has published a diary of his life as a bookseller whose house and private garden is the shop although it is possible some of the events and funny conversations with customers have extended beyond the twelve months of the diary. Bythell has developed an online reputation for being acerbic with customers who ask inane questions or behave badly in his shop and this has resulted in the antics that occur in his shop attracting international interest and folk now travel to Wigtown to experience “the Book Shop”. His extraordinary off-sider Nicky who seems to mis-shelf more books than she places correctly provides much of the humour in this book. As a regular visitor to any second hand bookshop I found this element of the book engaging.

Of additional interest is Bythell and the shop’s involvement in the reinvigoration of a small country town with literary festivals and cultural events. He seems to be indefatigable in such efforts and the results appear to have been significant. A further massive sub-theme of this book is the immense power wielded by Amazon Books and its subsidiary Abe Books over privately run book sellers all over the world. The sheer power of their price-cutting methodologies and the fact that to survive independent secondhand booksellers have little choice but to work through Amazon’s systems means that the industry is constantly under threat as margins reduce. Curiously in an epilogue written two years after the book was written Bythell notes that good second hand bookshops are fighting back successfully. Long may it continue! A third plus to reading this book is its frequent reference to many interesting books both fiction and antiquarian many of which whet the appetite for further literary exploration. Although the diary format can become tedious this book did maintain my interest to the end…but then not everyone shares my love of second hand bookshops! 3 stars.

Nancy Mitford: Love in a Cold Climate, Melbourne, Penguin, 2008 (1949)

Nancy Mitford (1904-73) was the daughter of “the second Lord Redesdale” (Drabble) and clearly grew up in the societal whirl and mores of early twentieth century English aristocracy about which she wrote many novels, of which Love in a Cold Climate is the most frequently read. This story is told from the point of view of the self-effacing Fanny, daughter of the irresponsible “bolter” [based on the real life of five times married Idina Sackville]. In the novel, Fanny describes in some detail the affairs of her cousins the Raddletts including her eccentric Uncle Matthew who is based on Lord Redesdale. This particular narrative concentrates on the showy, fabulously wealthy neighbouring Montdore family especially the dominant, racy and bohemian Lady Montdore, her obscure regular companion “Boy” Dugdale, her later over the top companion Cedric and the life and lovers (or lack of) her coldly beautiful daughter Polly Hampton. Mitford’s whimsical, light and sardonic commentary on the antics of these reckless upper-class aristocrats [Drabble] makes for useful entertainment on a four hour plane flight from New Zealand which is when I read the novel. Diverting, but sadly pointless. 3 stars.

Patrick Kinross, [John Patrick Douglas Balfour, Lord (Baron) Kinross]: The Ottoman Empire, London, Folio Society, 2003 (First published by Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1977, under the title The Ottoman Centuries:The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire.)

This is a masterful work of historical analysis written with verve, style, passion, insight and a deep understanding of the culture and history of both Ottoman civilisation and its European interactions. Kinross was a Scottish historian and writer, served in the British Air Force in WW11 and as First Secretary at the British Embassy in Cairo from 1944 to 1947.

The history covers the early Ottoman rise from the C13th wave of pagan refugees from the Asian steppes fleeing from Mongol dominance and possibly staying and settling in the north west of Asia Minor when the Mongols withdrew. Their founder was legendary Osman, son of Ertoghrul, and initially they were simply one of the smaller populations which survived from the invading Seljuk Empire and the Mongol Protectorate. Assimilated into Islamic faith and culture but maintaining their own complex Turkish language and unique culture they effectively took over the remains of the crumbling Byzantine Empire benefitting greatly from the sacking of Constantinople by Western Crusaders in 1453.

Kinross tells this story based around colourful and powerful key leaders and battles including Murad, the conqueror of the Balkans, Mehmed the conqueror of Byzantine lands in the East, Barbarossa the Pirate conqueror of the Mediterranean, and Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman established the flower of Ottoman culture and military power even threatening the fall of Vienna itself and so close to extending the power of the Ottoman Empire into central Europe. This vast and complex empire covering many cultures and faiths spread at one stage from Persia to the Armenian border with Russia, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt to modern day Rumania, Bosnia and Moldavia in the Balkans and across the north coast of Africa around the Mediterranean. Inevitably such a vast empire with so many different cultures and faiths would suffer decline but as “the sick man of Europe” the Ottoman Empire survived well into the C20th and its story is profoundly interesting.

Kinross’s strength is to maintain interest and excitement in spite of the vast amount of cultural, geographic and historical complexity through his understanding of the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of leaders and the key factors in the outcome of battle after battle. The reader is drawn into the Ottomanian dream and compelled to continue. Although the West has often regarded the Ottomans as brutally savage barbarians in need of civilising (and they were responsible for many horiffic massacres), nevertheless this analysis demonstrates that the armies of emerging European powers in the Middle Ages and into the modern period were no less barbarous and responsible for many massacres of their own. I have read few histories as good as this one. Apart from anything else the story explains clearly the basis of the commencement of World War I in Europe and the complex failed negotiations to prevent it as well as the inevitable blood bath in the former Yugoslavia once the Russian backed strongman Tito’s reign was over.

This Folio edition as expected comes with magnificent layout, artistic and photographic illustration and an excellent introduction and updated bibliography by controversial Oxford and Koç University Istanbul Professor Norman Stone who has challenged the Western view of the Armenian genocide regarding these events as a horrific civil war for possession of land. I read this complex work of 628 pages in 2.5 days and could not put it down. 5 stars and rising.

Marilynne Robinson: What Are We Doing Here? London, Virago, 2018

Marilyn Robinson: American novelist and philosopher

Award-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson of Housekeeping, Gilead, Home and Lila fame is also a world-regarded philosopher, moralist and public lecturer. Her teaching home is Iowa State University but she has lectured to large audiences throughout the Northern Hemisphere. This 2016-2018 collection includes lectures from the University of Chicago ( What is Freedom of Conscience? ); Liverpool Hope University (What are We Doing Here?); The University of Lund, Sweden (Theology for this Moment); Brigham Young University (The Sacred, The Human); Harvard Memorial Church ( The Divine); Stanford University (The American Scholar Now); Princeton University (Grace and Beauty); Northwestern University (The Beautiful Changes); The University of Virginia (Our Public Conversation: How America Talks About Itself); San Marino, California (Mind, Conscience, Soul); Regent College, Vancouver (Considering the Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Love); Westminster Abbey (Integrity and the Modern Intellectual Tradition); Harvard Divinity School, Old Souls, New World ); Trinity Cathedral, Little Rock, Arkansas (Slander). In addition it includes a 2016 article on Barak Obama who initially publicised her work, which was published in The Nation.

Robinson’s work is wide-ranging and intellectually demanding, informed by her personal strongly held Christian faith. It also includes a vast array of important yet out of the way historical material. It is also deeply challenging of many strongly held views current in recent Western intellectual discourse as well as some strongly held conservative Christian positions. In one essay she laughs at herself for being the philosopher of unpopular points of view and she certainly takes no prisoners in her assault on many commonly held ideas and writing, clearly demonstrating the lack of genuine historical basis and reference for many of them.

Robinson’s particular targets include amongst many others:
(i) the decline of careful and well researched political and rhetorical replaced by phantasms of the moment, or the decade…politicians playing to constituencies, by interest groups, by journalism that reflects unreflectingly whatever gimmicky notion is in the air and reinforces it. (p85) [in my view, not assisted by the 24 hour news cycle which by definition must blow up every minor comment into a major news crisis].
(ii) our superficial tourism …reality is that turbulent region out thoughts visit seldom or briefly, like Baedeker tourists eager to to glimpse the sights that will confirm our expectations and put us on shared conversational ground with decades of fellow tourists . We leave trash on Mount Everest, we drop trash in the sea, and reality goes on with life… (p91)
(iii) history writing that is vastly overly dependent on current day concepts of economic determinism (p90);
(iv) American university scholarship which “demonstrates” the collapse of interest in Western civilisation …western civilisation has “dropped” richness in painting, poetry, music, architecture and philosophy as meaningless categories (P91) cf also the losses in our modern understanding of psychology (P268). In general Robinson suggests that we appear to have effectively established “ the right to belligerent ignorance.”
(v) A general “Diminution” …one of the great projects of our time appears to be “dimunition”. (p253)
(vi) The thraldom of modernism (p260);
(vii) the tyranny of scientific and philosophic reductionism (p271 and just about every lecture);
(viii) her decided opposition to positivism (P274).

Clearly three of Robinson’s passions include Calvinism, the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards. In these essays Robinson provides a clear and well documented defence of both Calvinism, and before Calvin, John Wycliffe and the Lollards with their brave attempts to translate the Latin Bible into English before the printing press and their courage under fire in spreading its message. She demonstrates that Calvin’s hard edged teaching on Predestination is a relatively minor part of his vast and clear, well balanced, well researched scholarship and powerfully thoughtful theological output.

Equally powerfully Robinson defends the Puritans in several essays which effectively demonstrate their non-fanatical, generous and successful peace creating civil laws in both England and Massachusetts which contrasted strongly with the viciousness of Tudor penalties for any deviation from the theology of the day in both England and the Southern American colonies. The Puritans fell apart in England because Cromwell had no logical successor and because of, in the end, unsolvable differences within their own ranks over church organisation between Presbyterians and Congregationalists. In relation to Jonathan Edwards, she regards him yet as America’s finest theologian and suggests, as with Calvin, that superficial scholars pick out one sermon on Hell and use this to dismiss as hotheaded eccentricism his vast and deeply argued philosophical and theological output.

Robinson’s theological and philosophical drive is formidable and yet to be answered successfully to my knowledge. She must truly be regarded as one of, if not the finest American philosophers writing today. 5 stars.

Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping, London, Faber, 1981 [1980]

Mariynne Robinson’s Orange Prize winning first novel is a powerful and evocative description of two children orphaned at a very young age and brought up in turns by an assemblage of somewhat ambivalent relatives in an American wilderness town called Fingerbone. The story is told from the dreamy and imaginative point of view of the youngest daughter Ruth and her more resourceful and determined older sister Lucille.

This is no simple read. Robinson writes with such emotional power and with such believable insight into a child’s mind that the reader is both entranced and at the same time traumatised by the drama of the children’s lives. The reader longs for a an upturn of events but resolutions continue to be unexpected. There is no doubt that the novel makes a very strong impression on the mind of the reader which stays with you longer than most. The town and the story is built around a lake and a long railway bridge which straddles the lake. There are images here that indeed could last a life-time. Robinson cuts to the core of deep human longings and insights and although the tale is extraordinary she never resorts to melodrama. 4 stars.