Monday Miscellany

When novels change history

As with so many concepts in literature, the French have an elegant word for it: uchronie. For Anglophone readers and writers, we have to make do with such unwieldy terms as “counterfactual novels”, “alternate timelines” and “allohistories” to describe these books. Uchronie is a neologism modelled on Utopia – a “no-time” rather than a “no-place”, used for “what if” books where significant historical events are changed. In its pure form, a uchronic novel involves a specific moment of divergence: in Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration (Philip Pullman fans should check out the winking similarities between Lyra’s universe and Amis’s) it is that the Reformation never happened; in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America it is that Franklin Roosevelt loses the presidential election of 1940 to Charles Lindbergh. It is a kind of literature that seems to be on the increase – my evidence for this is gut instinct, triggered by reading a spate of them including Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Andrew Crumey’s Mobius Dick and the trade collection of Geoff Johns’s Flashpoint, but a quick browse around the website Uchronia seemed to confirm the hunch.

Stuart Kelly philosophizes about the current popularity of “what if” novels that, here in the United States, are commonly called alternate histories:  “The novel most frequently cited as uchronia par excellence is Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, where the Nazis won the second world war (a conceit developed later by Robert Harris in Fatherland).”

In Praise of Book Critics

A big “thank you” to Cynthia Crossen, who, in a column in The Wall Street Journal, acknowledges that a professional book reviewer’s job is harder than it looks:

Critics read heaps of bad books, only some of which they review. They read analytically, so no sinking into a warm bath of contentment. And they inflame influential, articulate people—media-friendly authors and their fans. . . . Good book critics are exceptionally well read and can put a book not only in the context of the writer’s earlier work but also in literary history. They can say if the novel is Dickensian, Rabelaisian, Biblical, Proustian or Shakespearean or none of the above.

Good reviewers also have a conscience. They act in good faith (no personal antagonism or professional jealousy) and are civil and respectful.

My own observation is that professional book critics usually are careful to explain their evaluations instead of baldly stating them without justification. All book reviews ultimately come down to a question of personal taste, but a review that explains its evaluation is more helpful to a reader than one that simply states it. In an age when the internet allows anyone to review anything and everything, it’s helpful to keep such a distinction in mind:

Today, anyone can be a critic, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s opinions are equal. Although I often disagree with professional critics, I’m always interested in how they’ve come to their mistaken conclusions.

But even a detailed review can run into trouble, as the next item demonstrates.

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson threatens suit over bad review

Niall Ferguson, a historian who teaches at Harvard, has responded to a negative review of his book “Civilization: The West and the Rest” with an angry letter and by saying, “Don’t force my hand by forcing me to put it in the hands of lawyers.” The long review, threaded through with analyses of Ferguson’s previous works and related histories, was written by Pankaj Mishra and appeared in the Nov. 3 issue of the London Review of Books

This particular altercation seems to hinge on issues of politics and libel. Read this short article for details of the dialogue the review has produced.

Need Suggestions for the Biblophiles on Your Holiday Gift List?

If you’re still stumped about what to get for your book-loving friends and family this holiday season, here’s some help.

The Christian Science Monitor offers 6 perfect gifts for the book lover in your life. Although this is a small list, it’s diverse enough that you should find something for nearly everybody.

The Seattle Times is a bit more ambitious, with its list of 22 gift books for ardent readers. Book editor Mary Ann Gwinn’s  list includes some unusual categories:

  • architecture
  • bibliophilia
  • crafts/domestic
  • Francophilia
  • geographilia
  • history
  • nature/natural history
  • pure fun

And if you’ve a mind to patronize an independent bookstore, check out Salon’s article America’s beloved independent bookstores.

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