Category Archives: G. K. Chesterton

These are a few of my favourite novels

A colleague is flying out from the USA to England tomorrow, and asked for recommendations of novels for the flight. Here’s what I suggested.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (John Le Carre): hard-edged, fascinating, realistic. Sparse, sparkling prose. Justly rated a classic.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis): written for children, but still the most moving book I know.

The Silmarillion (J. R. R. Tolkien): brutally difficult, but so full of goodness. Absolutely fascinating. If you liked The Lord of the Rings and have the discipline to get through the first 20 pages of near-poetry, it’s endlessly rewarding.

Carry On, Jeeves (P. G. Wodehouse): absolutely frivolous, and utterly delightful

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen): a restrained, brittle comedy that’s consistently misinterpreted even by people who love it.

Ringworld (Larry Niven): a truly amazing amount of invention in such a slim SF story.

Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur C. Clarke): a completely different take on broadly similar SF premise. Very believable.

The Owl Service (Alan Garner): profound, bewildering, engaging, rewards re-reading but remains somewhat baffling even then.

Watchmen (Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons): fully deserving its reputation as the greatest superhero story ever told, and the only graphic novel to make the New York Times list of the top novels of the 20th Century.

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (David Nobbs): a light comedy with disturbing undertones and perfectly drawn characters that live in the memory.

The Once and Future King (T. H. White): unbearably lovely and truly unique

The Man who was Thursday (G. K. Chesterton): the kind of book where you only figure out what it’s about as you’re reading it. Constantly surprising, forever delightful.

There are many more, but those are the ones I mentioned. The only conclusion I can draw from this list is that I really like books by authors who use initials instead of first names.

Why I’m jealous of my eldest son

In his recent blog-post The pillars of tax wisdom, Tim Harford (author of The Undercover Economist) discusses “James Mirrlees — now a Nobel laureate — who tried to figure out what could be said about optimal income taxation. One of his conclusions, surprising to him as much as anyone else, was that an optimal income tax might impose flat or even falling marginal tax rates.”

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G. K. Chesterton on Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films

Here’s what G. K. Chesterton had to say about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy:

Wherever his film is bad it is bad from some extravagance of imagery, some violence of comparison, some kind of debauch of cleverness. His nonsense never arises from weakness, but from a confusion of powers. If the phrase explain itself, he is far more a great film-maker than he is a good one. […] Mr. Jackson was in a great and serious difficulty. He really meant something. He aimed at a vivid and curious image, and He missed it. He had that catastrophic and public failure which is, as much as a medal or a testimonial, the badge of the brave.

Actually, Chesterton was writing about the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but the point stands. Jackson’s failures, and they are many, are the failures of over-ambition. For that reason, they are easy to forgive. All three films have moments where I want to scream at the TV in frustration. But they also all have moments of great beauty and real profundity. And that’s why, warts and all, they have so much more greatness than, say, The Bourne Identity, which I watched yesterday. That film is perfectly executed, but it’s not about anything. But Jackson caught a glimpse of Tolkien’s vision and reached for it. That he failed in part really seems neither here nor there.

G. K. Chesterton on enjoying lowbrow art

A wise man wrote:

[The bombast in the novels of Sir Walter Scott] will always be stirring to anyone who approaches it, as he should approach all literature, as a little child. We could easily excuse the contemporary critic for not admiring melodramas and adventure stories, and Punch and Judy, if he would admit that it was a slight deficiency in his artistic sensibilities. Beyond all question, it marks a lack of literary instinct to be unable to simplify one’s mind at the first signal of the advance of romance. “You do me wrong”, said Brian de Bois-Guilbert to Rebecca. “Many a law, many a commandment have I broken, but my word, never”.  “Die”, cries Balfour of Burley to the villain in Old Mortality. “Die, hoping nothing, believing nothing–”  “And fearing nothing”, replies the other. This is the old and honourable fine art of bragging, as it was practised by the great worthies of antiquity. The man who cannot appreciate it goes along with the man who cannot appreciate beef or claret or a game with children or a brass band. They are afraid of making fools of themselves, and are unaware that that transformation has already been triumphantly effected.

— G. K. Chesterton, Twelve Types: The Position of Sir Walter Scott

I am confident that Chesterton, if he lived today, would be a big fan of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who.  And he would be right to be.