Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher — Nicholas Fearn
I’ve been keeping this book in the bathroom and reading it in short segments as circumstances dictate. You know what I’m saying. It’s a fascinating overview of the history of philosophy, told in 25 short chapters. Each is about a single philosopher (Wittgenstein alone gets two), and consists of a brief biographical sketch and an outline of his key ideas.
(I say “his” ideas, because every single philosopher discussed in the book is male. For much of the history of thought, that was the reality, and it’s right that the book reflects that. But it does seem odd that in the later chapters, influential female philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir and Elizabeth Anscombe are overlooked in favour of the likes of Jacques Derrida and even Richard Dawkins.)
The Enemy — Desmond Bagley
Bagley wrote about a dozen novels, all thrillers, and most of them excellent. They were written in the 70s and 80s, so they have dated in some respects — not least where then-cutting-edge technology is involved, but if you can overlook that they remain gripping and enjoyable.
The Enemy, alongside Running Blind and The Freedom Trap, is among the best of his books. (On the other hand, his last two novels, published posthumously, are the worst, and best avoided except for completion’s sake.)
Saga of the Swamp Thing — Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Toteben
I re-read this as part of my Alan Moore phase — following on from his Watchmen and Complete Future Shocks, and Andrew Rilstone’s Who Sent The Sentinels?, last time. It’s a fascinating read, having more in common with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics than with Moore’s usual work, with its dependence on supernatural themes and general feeling of being more horror than fantasy.
Swamp Thing had been a moderately successful DC Comics character from 1972 and 1976. Continue reading
Who Sent the Sentinels? — Andrew Rilstone
A short but brilliant analysis of Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s classic graphic novel Watchmen (see below). Rilstone peers at the original comics and the 2009 movie from many different angles, supplementing his observations and insights on these works with more general thoughts about comics derived from reading golden-age DC and silver-age Marvel.
What emerges is a profound but fragmented view on the whole Watchmen phenomenon, arrived at not by following a single careful train of thought but by the gradual accumulation of understanding from multiple perspectives and the progressive accretion of a synthetic view.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire — J. K. Rowling
By this point, Rowling has hit her stride — which is both good and bad. Having sold millions of copies of her first three books, she had evidently outgrown the commercial need for editing … but not the artistic need. As a result of Rowling’s power by this stage of her career, Goblet of Fire is flabby where Prisoner of Azkaban was taut. If you recount the plot beats in each, the two stories turn out to be about the same length — as testified by the running times of the movie adaptations, 141 and 157 minutes repectively. Yet the book’s 636 pages take literally twice as long to tell that story as the 317 pages of Prisoner.
How does this happen? Events are stretched out. The writing becomes indisciplined, indulgent. Minor school events that in earlier books would have been skimmed over in a half a page are drawn out into multi-page scenes with each aspect described in detail. As a result, the book is somewhat slow-moving, and I didn’t find myself drawn propulsively through as I did with the earlier books.
THE COMPLETE BEYOND THE FRINGE — BENNETT, COOK, MILLER AND MOORE
I re-read this compilation of the scripts of the Beyond the Fringe sketches because I was also re-reading Roger Wilmut’s history of early British sketch comedy From Fringe to Flying Circus (see below). As with all cultural movements, it’s sort of arbitrary where one draws the line and says “this is where it started” (were Black Sabbath the first heavy metal band, or do we go back to the Kinks’ You Really Got Me?), but a fair case can be made that the 1961 revue Beyond the Fringe was really the starting point of modern sketch comedy: a show written entirely by the performers, with minimal set and props keeping attention on the words, and combining satire with surrealism.
Cast of Beyond The Fringe, by Lewis Morley, resin print, 1961. Back row, left to right: Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett; front, Dudley Moore.
From this beginning, and from subsequent Cambridge Footlights revues such as A Clump of Plinths (retitled Cambridge Circus for the West End), came most of the distinctive British sketch comedy of the late 1960s, 1970s and 80s — including The Goodies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus — and later narrative comedies like Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns. But in truth, it’s not at all obvious from the Fringe scripts that all this creativity was waiting to burst out. It’s clearest in the work of the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore duo, which is more prone to veer off on surreal tangents than that of Alan Bennett or Jonathan Miller. But there is a distinctively upper-class quality to the performances of all four (ironically given the relatively unexalted origins of both Bennett and Moore) — which makes it all the more strange to think that Beyond the Fringe was perceived as dangerously iconoclastic back in 1961.
You’ve probably noticed that, in among all the politics and TV reviews and suchlike, I have several long-running intermittent series on the go: detailed Paul Simon album reviews, Desert Island albums, the annual What I’ve Been Listening To posts — and What I’ve Been Reading Lately.
None of those posts get a lot of comments. In particular, the WIBRL posts seem to mostly drop into a void. I wonder whether in part it’s because I tend to talk about ten or so books at once. If I posted shorted WIBRL entries — say, three books each — do you think they would be easier to read and engage with?