The Common Reader

Reading whatever's interesting, whenever it was written. 'I rejoice to concur with the common reader.' Samuel Johnson

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The Common Reader 792 HN points 17 May 21
Is there a better piece of writing about the pleasures of rain? Jeremy Fisher is a domestic there-and-back-again story based on a traditional, rural, English form of epicurean values. It's a books about upper-middle-class characters, but not a book that believes that social status matters. Happiness is living without the constraints of other people's needless rules. It's also a paean to common sense against silly old wives’ tales.
The Common Reader 792 HN points 30 Oct 20
This is a film about an American lady in the 1950s ordering books by post from an old bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. It's funny and warm hearted and nostalgic. You shouldn't need to know much more than that to go and watch it. I am all in favour of books and films that promote the value of reading classic English literature, that show you can have an interesting life without leaving your room, and which make no use of fast or exhilarating events to create a dramatic plot. As well as making you pine for old-fashioned furniture, a London that never quite existed, and the joy of a life in poverty as an undiscovered writer, this film should send you hurrying off to look for your copies of Donne's
The Common Reader 396 HN points 08 Jul 19
My wife finds it irritating that I often take a long time to get round to following her recommendations, even though the ones I follow almost always turn out to be successful. This post is about what sort of advice is worth taking - my view of the evidence is, not much - and why a (very basic) bayesian attitude is worthwhile.
The Common Reader 396 HN points 23 Feb 21
One of the great fables about late bloomers is the tortoise and the hare. We are taught as children its simple moral that the race is not to the swift. However, what we are not told is that applying the fable isn’t straightforward. The real race is against ourselves, not other people.
The Common Reader 396 HN points 21 Jun 21
Did you know that Princess Margaret had been a patron of the London Lighthouse, an AIDs charity famous for its association with Princess Diana, and that she used to visit patients there and make them laugh? Or that she could happily, uncomplainingly scramble up scrubby, bramble covered hillsides with her friends? Or that she could be the sort of houseguest who did your hair and laid fires in the grates? This is all very far from the Princess Margaret of legend. The autocratic monster who bickered, sniped, and commanded her way through obituaries, biographies, and
The Common Reader 396 HN points 31 May 21
What a world we live in when a book like this is out of print, (although available for small change online). Elizabeth Jenkins was nearly ninety when she wrote A Silent Joy, which invokes the 1950s with a combination of nostalgia and clear-eyed moral distaste. She doesn’t exactly take on popular themes. Some sorts of divorce are criticised for being selfish. The hero is a genial old patriarch. The villains are a selfish wife and her grasping, social-climbing lover. There is class tension (sometimes almost hostility) between many of the characters.
The Common Reader 396 HN points 07 Jun 21
This is what Boswell has to say about a strange gap in the record of Johnson’s life: It is somewhat curious, that his literary career appears to have been almost totally suspended in the years 1745 and 1746, those years which were marked by a civil war in Great-Britain, when a rash attempt was made to restore the House of Stuart to the throne. That he had a tenderness for that unfortunate House, is well known; and some may fancifully imagine, that a sympathetick anxiety impeded the exertion of his intellectual powers: but I am inclined to think, that he was, during this time, sketching the outlines of his great philological work.
The Common Reader 396 HN points 12 Mar 20
I am reminded by this question of Leonard Bernstein's father who didn't want his son to study music and who later said, 'How did I know that he would become Leonard Bernstein?' The obvious person to study is Penelope Fitzgerald. No-one would have marked her out as potentially one of the great novelists of her generation. She was a smart high-achieving student who ended up not applying her talent as a young woman and then lived a difficult and sad life. When she did start writing, at around retirement age, she flourished. People look at the troubles of her life which gave her inspiration for the early books. Look instead at her persistent wide-ranging immersion in great European art. She travelled, read, learnt and practised the languages of the big historical cultures. She sat in the rafters at the opera and theatre, taking her own sandwiches. And she taught. Yes her life was a mess, her house sank, her husband was a dropout. But it was rigour that meant she had the ability to turn that material into unique, astonishing novels. Hermione Lee has a snippet from some family friends, talking I think about when the boat sank, who said that was exactly the sort of thing they expected of the Fitzgeralds. They were looking at the wrong thing.
The Common Reader 396 HN points 02 Feb 21
Carlyle was impotent. This is the most important fact about him, personal or public. He did not realise his condition until he got married — Froude tells the tragic story of Carlyle thrashing a flower bed to shreds the morning after his wedding. For the rest of his life, that anger never really left him.
The Common Reader 396 HN points 28 Jun 21
As A.G.C. Liddell’s memoir Notes from the Life of an Ordinary Mortal suggests in its title, the author isn’t exactly ordinary. That’s the way a snob like Frasier would announce himself to be one of the common men. And sure enough, there are plenty of times when old A.G.C. betrays his insular Victorian idea of what an ordinary mortal is. Much fun it is too.
The Common Reader 351 HN points 16 Mar 21
Let there be more biographies of failures, people who were ignored by the world, whose ideas came before their time, whose great work was left in ruins. The point of biography is to set an example, to teach us how other people did the things we want to do. That might be something grand like live a good life, or it might be something more mundane like manage a small company. Whatever it is, the genre suffers from selection bias. Only the successful get biographies.
HN comments
The Common Reader 141 HN points 16 Aug 21
I was ill recently (nothing serious, but if you want to send chocolates and flowers I’ll readily provide my mailing address) and while I was suffering I needed a movie. Netflix provided me with so many choices that I rapidly alighted on Sabrina, the 1995 remark of a Billy Wilder film. (I would have preferred Wilder, but the original was not available.) It turns out that, rather than being a classic romantic comedy, this film is a sloppy dollop of schlock.
The Common Reader 141 HN points 26 Jul 21
Baliol Blount Holloway (1883-1967), actor, known as ‘Bay’ or ‘Ba’, was born on 28 February 1883 in Brentwood, Billericay, second son of Thomas Henry Holloway (b.1833), a retired wine merchant, and only son of Emma Harriet Jordan (1853-1895). Thomas had previously married Elizabeth Stratton (1836-1880), mother of Baliol’s half-brother Wilfred Stratton Holloway (b.1873).
The Common Reader 105 HN points 13 Sep 21
Time was I would be able to go the National Gallery on my lunch break and watch repeats of Frasier while I dealt with the post in the mornings. Sometimes I would sit in Trafalgar Square reading art history, or walk around St James’ Park and see the pelicans. I used to go to talks and lectures, during the day or straight after work. Heck, when it was really quiet we used to go drinking at lunch on the terrace looking over the Thames. There were days when this was marvellous and days when it was part of the mind-flogging inertia of working in Parliament, which is as quiet as a morgue during recess.
The Common Reader 105 HN points 05 Jul 21
As with many of his hit plays, Noël Coward wrote Blithe Sprit in a short, intense burst. For six days I worked from eight to one each morning and from two to seven each afternoon. On Friday evening, May ninth, the play was finished and, disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success.
The Common Reader 105 HN points 23 Aug 21
The reason Jane Austen remains popular is the enormous extent to which she is misunderstood. It may be impossible to be popular for the right reasons. If you’re really a truth teller you’d better be funny because otherwise they will kill you. That’s why she’s funny. She’s funny about human nature, which doesn’t change. Any writer who presents human nature as it really is will last.
The Common Reader 70 HN points 06 Sep 21
Biography has a challenge: how to represent a personality in writing when digital technology can do it so much better. Virginia Woolf, inevitably, had already understood this dilemma a hundred years ago. ‘Since we live in an age when a thousand cameras are pointed, by newspapers, letters, and diaries, at every character from every angle, we must be prepared to admit contradictory versions of the same face. Biography will enlarge its scope by hanging up looking glasses at odd corners. And yet from all this diversity it will bring out, not a riot of confusion, but a richer unity.’
The Common Reader 70 HN points 30 Aug 21
What startles the first-time reader of Virginia Woolf’s diaries is her constant rudeness. She compares James Joyce to a “queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” T. S. Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, was “unwholesome, powdered, insane,” and all in all a “bag of ferrets.” Clive Bell’s mother was “a little rabbit faced woman.” And Lady Cunard is described, after a lunch in 1928, as a “ridiculous little parakeet faced woman.” Like much of Woolf’s diaries, that last description has an echo in her fiction. In
The Common Reader 70 HN points 19 Jul 21
Fires played a significant role in Thomas Edison’s life. When he was six he burned down his father’s barn. When the furious father asked the boy why he had done it, young Edison replied that he had wanted to see what would happen. When Edison was a teenager he accidentally started a fire on a train with his chemistry set. Many years later in 1914, when Edison was sixty-seven, a fire burnt down thirteen buildings in his laboratory.
The Common Reader 70 HN points 09 Aug 21
Dana Gioia is everything a poet ought to be. He was a large-volume reader as a child, but has never been myopically focussed on poetry. His knowledge of art history and sci-fi are exceptional. (He knows, by memory, the location of every Brueghel painting in the world.) He has always been a poor sleeper and reads at night. He is rigorous. His education, formal and self-directed, means he really
The Common Reader 70 HN points 12 Jul 21
Lewis, George P., photographer. Image from IWM: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205127710 Third from the left, on the front row, looking slightly sulky, slouching in his chair, a very untypical posture for a cabinet member to take in 1918, is Andrew Bonar Law. You don’t hear much about Bonar Law these days. He was Prime Minister for 209 days and although it was a successful administration, it wasn’t an astonishing one. How could it be? This is why Asquith remarked, snidely, as he left Bonar Law’s funeral at Westminster Abbey, ‘we have buried the Unknown Prime Minister by the side of the Unknown Soldier.’ That has summed up his reputation ever since.
The Common Reader 35 HN points 02 Aug 21
I am delighted to tell you that I have an article in UnHerd today about Alan Lascelles, who was the Queen’s first Private Secretary (you will remember him from The Crown). In the piece, you’ll find my argument that Lascelles was an essential part of what it took for the monarchy to survive the transition to democracy — and that the rather dour view of Lascelles we get from Netflix is a little one-sided.
The Common Reader 4 HN points 09 Mar 21
Is Benjamin Disraeli the most misunderstood Prime Minister? Perhaps not. The list of obscure, misinterpreted, or simply maligned Prime Ministers is long. Lloyd George, the man who won the First World War, is primarily remembered as a shagger and a flogger of honours. Bonar Law, his partner in the war time coalition, is called the Unknown Prime Minister.
HN comments
The Common Reader 0 HN points 12 Apr 21
What a conflicting book this is. The subject is fascinating. A diarist whose life was a colossal failure. And not just in material terms: she never lived up to the deeply held visions she had of herself as an artist (written, musical, visual). The journey from the young magical vibrations of ambition to the bleak imprisoned despair of late middle age rivals Larkin’s letters. We have potentially been gifted a great diarist of the twentieth century.
The Common Reader 0 HN points 14 Jun 21
It is difficult to think of Patsy Markham being dead. She had so much presence. So many of her qualities were expansive without being crude. Like a portrait, she was even dramatic when she was still. She was as lively on the phone as she was in person. The list of things you can easily associate with her is characteristic: eye masks, pekinese, a make-up case as big as a medicine chest, dressing gowns with a train, extra large eggs, caravans, jewellery. Her eye make-up was always bright, even on days when she was not. Her laugh was enormous and all the more enjoyable for it. She brought glamour to her surroundings.
The Common Reader 0 HN points 30 Mar 21
This is a short book that makes you feel like you’ve had a long holiday. It is full of the plangent combination of nostalgia and humour that all great English memoirs share. It’s a coming of age story about a young boy who goes to stay with a group of old people who hover between wisdom and absurdity.
The Common Reader 0 HN points 10 May 21
There should be a museum of biography. It would have no permanent collections, only exhibitions, unless it could become an archival centre for biographical research. It would reveal the history of people’s lives through objects, images, and films. Imagine being able to explore the life of people like Margaret Thatcher by walking through her life. You could blend photographs and quotes from her early life, with reconstructed rooms from her home; information about grocers and contemporary local history could be illuminated with objects, interview material, a life-size model of her father’s shop; we could hear her reminisce about it, watch her school friends talk about her. Copies of her letters to her sister would be displayed.
The Common Reader 0 HN points 23 Oct 20
Harold Bloom said that irony is the key to reading well, 'even if many of your teachers will not know what it is, or where it is to be found.' And it is remarkable how often, even when watching plays or television, people object to the use of irony. There's a schoolteacher's insistence on explaining, choosing sides, things being unraveled. The idea of implication, or of things meaning the opposite to what they seem to be, is not something many people who read and watch culture are interested in.
The Common Reader 0 HN points 05 Apr 21
It takes all sorts to make a world, my aged grandmother used to say with a sour edge to her voice. And she was right to be suspicious. Among the many sorts of undesirable you can be unfortunate enough to meet with are those who have never read — and worse, never
The Common Reader 0 HN points 02 Mar 21
Queen Mary was a remarkable and interesting woman whose unique traits have been overlooked. Too much focus on her eccentricities and selfishness distracts from what is really interesting about her.
The Common Reader 0 HN points 24 Nov 20
One day, when I am spiritually advanced enough to endure penury, I will teach English Literature to the deserving, and we will study Confessions of an English Opium Eater, reading it out loud, just to enjoy its syntax. People talk about this as the first memoir of addiction, but for the first half of the book there is nothing about opium at all. And the second half talks as much about De Quincey’s love of a good hard winter and how he likes to drink tea all night as it does about getting high. He even says at one point that he won’t describe the symptoms of a come down more fully because he hasn’t got the space. (The book is only about a hundred pages long.)
The Common Reader 0 HN points 23 Mar 21
Penelope Fitzgerald was supposed to be a prodigy. Her father edited Punch, and her aunts and uncles were, variously, World War II code breakers, novelists, prominent clergymen (Catholic and Anglican), founding members of the Detective Club, that sort of thing. It was ‘a family where everyone was publishing, or about to publish.’ Her mother and grandmother had both gone to Somerville College, Oxford, and her grandfathers had both been Bishops.