Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Eagerly Awaiting: "Adventures in the Book Pages"

My review copy is in the mail, coming from across the pond and through US Customs, but Francis Phillips of The Catholic Herald has already read it and reviews Adventures in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews here, with some insights from Edward Short on the art of reviewing books:

Short is also a Catholic, whose insights and assessments are informed by his faith. As a book reviewer myself, who often asks herself, “What is the point of reviewing?”, I asked Short what he thinks the task of a Catholic reviewer is. He tells me he is tempted to answer “one is not a Catholic reviewer but only a reviewer who happens to be Catholic” but then adds, “Yet there is a sense in which my faith does give me a special charge whenever I review books. I am on my mettle not only to write sensibly and fairly but also charitably. I also try to look at my subjects, as far as I can, sub specie aeternitatis. Lastly, I am always careful not to bore the reader.”

Reviewing, he thinks, is a “lowly enterprise, but it is precisely its lowliness that ensures its usefulness. Good reviewing – and I would argue, proper Catholic reviewing especially – demands good reading; also humility and self-effacement.”

Does being a Catholic reviewer leave one open to the charge of bias? Short reminds me that “all writing is biased. Certainly a Catholic bias is better than a nihilist or liberal bias, both of which tend to underestimate good books and overestimate those that are meretricious or highly regarded by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.” He believes that proper Catholic bias “gives one depth and balance, as well as sympathy and zest. And it puts one beyond the pale of fashion. The good Catholic reviewer should always be ready to be a sign of contradiction; a just and generous guide to the good work of others – but always a defender of the good, the beautiful and the true, even when it exposes him to obloquy.” He adds with conviction, “We must denounce the idiocies of the age.”

Can reviewing be a creative activity in its own right? Short reminds me that many of the personalities he covers in his book, such as Chesterton, Auden, Eliot, Greene and Waugh, wrote reviews expressly to fuel their own creative work. He thinks Graham Greene was an excellent critic, as was Waugh. He is grateful for the books he gets sent as they give him the opportunity “to learn about a subject or author that could very well serve as good creative grist to my own work.” As an example, he mentions Jane Ridley’s biographies of Edwin Lutyens and Edward VII which have been “an education not only in biography but history and narrative and that often elusive, subtle thing, style.”

Short also tells me that as his work on Newman is rooted in his 19th century English context, he tends to review books by or about figures of that period, such as Henry Mayhew, Ruskin, AWN Pugin, Gladstone, Thackeray and Hopkins. His favourite authors in his book “tend to be those from whom I learn the most, such as the historian Michael Burleigh.” He adds that “I have also learnt a fair amount from Fr Ian Ker, whose critical biographies of Newman and Chesterton are full of good things.”

Edward Short recently reviewed The Oxford Movement: Europe and the Wider World 1830-1930, edited by Stewart J. Brown and Peter B. Nockles and published by Cambridge University Press for The Catholic World Report, so he is probably preparing volume two of his adventures. 

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