A tale of two an­tholo­gies: New States­man de­liv­ers the cream; the LRB a cof­fee ta­ble

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS -

“The most lit­er­ary gift of the year,” sets out the ed­i­tors’ stall.

Pub­lished to cel­e­brate the mag­a­zine’s 40th an­niver­sary, rather than ac­tu­ally of­fer­ing any com­plete ar­ti­cles or re­views from the mag­a­zine’s his­tory, this an­thol­ogy in­stead pro­vides a series of short ex­pla­na­tions writ­ten by its cur­rent ed­i­tors and con­trib­u­tors, printed to ac­com­pany a scrap­book-style col­lage of hand­writ­ten post-it notes, scrib­bled-on tran­scripts, pri­vate and pub­lic let­ters and emails, and ex­cerpts from fin­ished pieces. It’s a bit of a headache to read.

It ap­pears to be de­signed to cater to those in­ter­ested in (or, per­haps more ac­cu­rately, “ob­sessed with”) the mag­a­zine as an ob­ject. Read­ing through it, con­tin­u­ally frus­trated by the in­com­plete in­for­ma­tion, as well as the self-con­grat­u­la­tory tone adopted by some of the ed­i­tors, I was re­minded of how it felt to flick through those spe­cial­ist books that die-hard fans some­times pur­chase to ac­com­pany and dis­sect al­bums or con­certs of wildly adored bands or along­side films.

In other words, this is a book that caters specif­i­cally to fans of the LRB, and will be an ab­so­lute gem for those people, if such ex­ist (ac­cord­ing to Andrew O’Ha­gan’s in­tro­duc­tory es­say, “To those who care for it the London Re­view is a na­tional trea­sure,” so I sup­pose they must).

The an­thol­ogy, then, cel­e­brates the mag­a­zine it­self, its in­cep­tion and his­tory, speak­ing of its sep­a­ra­tion from the New York Re­view of Books in terms that por­tray it as a seis­mic event, ref­er­enc­ing the great ex­cite­ment of the “the­ory wars” that played out on its pages, and ded­i­cat­ing pages to the mildly funny ex­cla­ma­tions of its found­ing ed­i­tor. Sadly, it does not of­fer us any com­pre­hen­sive or ob­jec­tively in­ter­est­ing in­sight into its past con­tent (which, let me make clear, is and al­ways has been, in this re­viewer’s opin­ion, ex­cep­tional in its qual­ity and breadth – if only it were in­cluded). But then, it is pre­sented with the caveat of be­ing “in­com­plete”, so per­haps my ex­pec­ta­tions were too high.

You get the im­pres­sion, read­ing through this an­thol­ogy, that you must have missed the joke, or didn’t get an in­vite to the party – that you sim­ply had to have been there. This is not a pleas­ant read­ing sen­sa­tion. But per­haps the strug­gle to make a co­he­sive and uni­ver­sally in­ter­est­ing an­thol­ogy is un­der­stand­able, see­ing as the LRB is, first and fore­most, a ve­hi­cle for re­views, rather than for es­says or orig­i­nal, cre­ative work, and it is hard, per­haps, to ef­fec­tively an­thol­o­gise old re­views.

Still, from the per­spec­tive of some­one who sub­scribes to the mag­a­zine it­self, and al­ways looks for­ward to its ar­rival, and con­sid­er­ing the writ­ers they have fea­tured over the years, this an­thol­ogy proves dis­ap­point­ing – as they said, a gift, rather than some­thing you might ac­tu­ally want read.

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