Saturday, April 11

Book Smart – Jane Mallison

I don’t know what I expected from Book Smart, but given its subtitle (Your Essential Reading List for Becoming a Literary Genius in 365 Days) I imagine it was a shortcut approach to all those books I know I should have read but haven’t. That’s not so far from the mark, less the shortcut aspect.
Mallison has grouped essential titles by category (“Towering Works to Read in Translation,” “”Strong Women, Admirably So and Otherwise,” “Unaccustomed Places, Real and Fancied”) and allocated each collection to a month – her suggestion is that the reader selects one book from each category (making one, I imagine, a tenth of a literary genius by years’ end), but hopes that some will opt instead for an alphabetical, chronological or otherwise themed (female writers, non-English-language authors) reading list.
Each month is introduced and Mallison explains the theme (for example “June is often a time for hitting the road or taking to the air, so it’s an appropriate month for traveling of the mental variety as well”), giving a brief description of each title (“Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim from England in the 1950’s, my all-time favorite, concerns the fortunes of a hapless history professor”). Each title then gets a couple of pages wherein Mallison discusses the plot, the author, the era and the impact of the book. Sometimes she follows this up with a boxed recommended reading section:
Strachey may have changed to some degree the course of biography but the whirligig of time brings its revenges. In 1967 and 1968 Michael Holroyd brought out a hefty (and excellent) two-volume biography of Strachey… its revelations of Strachey’s many same-sex affairs and ribald witticisms shocked readers of its generation much as Strachey’s arch volume has shocked his contemporaries. If you like the Romans, try Lives of the Caesars by Strachey’s first-century model, Suetonius.
Unfortunately I found Mallison’s voice a little condescending and didactic, which interfered with my ability to get involved with the writing. The preface was stuffed with quotations to such an extent that I suspected she’d drawn them from a collection (there are five quotes about books or reading just on page xiii), and in some places I felt as though she were showing off her erudition. The self-congratulatory section on “the joys of being well-read” was particularly annoying. It’s enough to be discussing the book in question (primarily novels but there is also a smattering of biographies, a hefty dose of poetry, and the odd work of non-fiction), many of which I was wholly unfamiliar with, without bringing in other esoteric works.
In fairness, at least some of my displeasure was probably unrelated to the merit of Mallison’s writing and due, instead, to a broader disenchantment related to a combination of disappointing books and external pressures. Though I read a lot, being reminded of my preference for accessible over worthy works probably didn’t help - of the 120 books listed I’d heard of only half (and of the sixteen which I’ve read most were when I was at school). If would probably do me good to work my way through at least some of Mallison’s suggestions, but not just yet. - Alex

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