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Let us first examine theediscerning?' title today. It refers to the more pertinent words in the name of this publication - namely, London, Review, and Books, of course. London most certainly is relevant. The LRB (as it is more snappily known) lives on Little Russell Street, and within the past year has launched its own bookshop at Bury Place. But much more importantly, of course, are the questions "do they review?" and "do they review books?" Well, the answers here are more complex. First off, let us take the example of the issue dated 19th June 2003, which is the most current but one. In this we find two pages of discussion about the Roadmap for Peace in Israel. We also get another large essay on Blair's constitutional criminality of recent times, which is followed by some hip 'n' happening author being given four whole pages (bar side-articles and adverts, of course) to write about, er, skateboarding. Now while this might be interesting in a Granta-style publication (and, as those who have tried Granta will know, it may equally as well NOT be), but here, with the target audience of this astute, academic journal, the latter especially seems rather redundant. To speak of the Israel question is in fact not what theediscerning wishes, much, but it seems to be something the LRB is more than fond of. Almost every issue it drops its titular concentration and offers some article or other about the world at large, on a political, and often Islam vs the West, scale. This can only, of course, bring problems, and the issue immediately following 9/11 is now noted in LRB history. It wouldn't be, except they carefully printed some horrible racist comments from some terrorist sympathisers, and therefore published the idea that the USA thoroughly deserved to die en masse. Such racist rubbish was bad enough live on Newsnight, if you remember, but when allegedly intelligent, editable and v
et-able eminences grises sit round a tab le somewhere and formulate the same despicable idea and get away with it, something is clearly wrong somewhere. The LRB didn't (get away with it, that is). As for the political balance of the LRB, there have been many examples of a rather unsavoury pro-Palestinian bias, and often the Israelite side is put down far too harshly, and in unseemly ways. It certainly is the less represented. This year the LRB has, in occasional issues, gone to some extent full gloss colour, in order to include centre spreads on the 9/11 issue by Art Spiegelman, of Maus fame. While such an idea might be OK ~ we would probably expect such art to be in a more mainstream publication ~ the results are basically pants, and show how some of the mighty can fall. So enough of the variety and intent of the modern LRB. Does it review while it's at it? Well, it's really hard to tell. The thing is that 90% of the time the books under discussion (when they are actually looking at books) are so esoteric, so obscure, so unattractive to the layman, it is nigh-on impossible to compare book with end article about it. In the seven issues theediscerning has on hand to discuss (more of which later), he really only found the latest Dave Eggers, David Swift, Eco ~ that sort of thing that he would ever be interested (and capable of finding) to read. Nothing else, whether it be "Voyages of Delusion : The search for the North-West Passage in the age of reason" or "Privacy : concealing the 18th Century self" really holds much appeal, funnily enough. And the style of these lengthy articles, farmed out to professionals, academics, noted authors etc to write, is one that takes a lot of getting used to. If you are reading about a novel herein, be prepared for far too much detail about the end of the plot, where they give it all away, and not enough about the book itself to make you more or less knowl
edgeable or interested. Where it is a non-fiction tome, such as it is in the majority of cases, the 'reviews' seem most unusual. Again, theediscerning is never in a position to compare review with reviewed, but they so often seem to contain so much information you do not know, and did not know you needed to know. Whether this is basic information to the cognoscenti, or is just a summary of the first few sections of the book the author has then launched from and added to in some learned way, or is itself completely new research and summarising from the essayist, it is hard to tell. Theediscerning's theory, however, is that the majority of essays just précis the book, giving an abstract so that to all intents and purposes, you would never need to pick up the actual volume. Either way, there will be very little in the way of anyone saying whether a book is readable, value for money, fresh and up-to-date, or badly written piffle. The contents will be spread out before you, with some dressing, and with only the slightest jot of comment as to their worth ~ for a non-fiction book, it will literally be ten words out of 5000. If that is what academics find most useful, then the LRB is for them, and good luck to them. (They also, remarkably, put up with books reviewed sometimes a whole year after publication. Do these pages, however large the word count, really take that long to write?) What is good is when an essay seems to complement the book to some extent, and is interesting and erudite, such as Jenny Diski's 'review' on "Green Gold : the empire of tea". Here the LRB material serves well as a bonus extra to people interested or otherwise in the book, and such writing is both good for perusing once and enjoying, or keeping as a completist extra to the book. This happens all too rarely for theediscerning to really recommend the LRB. Yes, there are the occasional fine pieces of writing, and someti
mes the articles on side-issues are of interest (for theed', most recently Peter Saville at the Design Museum.) . And sometimes theed' has pulled articles out about particularly interesting-sounding novels; just in case he should (a) read the book, (b) find the article while book is still in his memory, and (c) wish to relate the two. In this day and age, bizarrely, probably the most interesting pages in the LRB are the personals. Yes, even us brainy people are (sometimes) lonely. But how on earth do they expect to hit pay-dirt when they advertise themselves thus:- "I am the Lizard King. I can do anything. Except use a bath unassisted. Androgynous Medieval Lit. lecturer seeking sudsy F savant, Grampian. Own loofah essential." Unbeliebeable as it may seem, that is a 100% quote from a recent advert (theediscerning tried to make his own up, and failed miserably). Bare months ago the LRB stopped their own incentive of a bottle of gin for the most, er, dare we say individual, ad, so they were at times worse. One even mentioned the possession of a combine harvester. Beats lying about your weight, though. So, should theediscerning's readers still be interested in the LRB experience, what can they do about it? Well, there is the website, and the expense of subscribing to get access to the articles and archive for free. But for the current issues, there are two options, and neither seems satisfactory. The first is to hope to find it in the high street. This is unlikely; only in the past month or two has the largest WH Smiths in town ~ the town being the 11th biggest in the country too ~ started again to sell the LRB. Of course it wouldn't be found in the local corner shop, but apart from ordering issues in especially, it would most probably be the biggest branches of the biggest retailers, or university campus shops that would sell it. The second option, however, is the subscri
ption. However, unless things have changed in theed's absence of a couple of years, the magazine is released on a Thursday, fortnightly, and the postman has been delivering them Saturdays. Not very good, when they used to hit the doormat the same morning as the news-stands. Also, theediscerning has observed, should you subscribe, you immediately lose any chance of all the freebies sometimes given away. These range from a recent £5 voucher for the bookshop, to an Alan Bennett book (the LRB LURVE Alan Bennett). This also sucks. And on the subject of missing out on freebies, up until a couple of years ago, HarperCollins' Fire and Water people would often have an advert in offering free books should you just ring them up and ask. These have stopped, annoyingly. True there are the occasional samplers and trial issues to ask for, but they aren't enough to compensate for the standard cover charge of £2.95. No, the best way to get the LRB is ~ most sporadically. The LRB are very generous in offering six issue trial subscriptions ~ a 6 months' worth of subs in cheque form comes to £29.95. Send them that, they send you six issues, you ask to cancel and get the £30 back, no strings attached (and from experience, not long before you can do the same again, address et al exactly the same). When theediscerning tried that just the other week the cheque arrived two working days after a simple email was sent. It is most probable the heavy-handed writing in the LRB is not for you. The style and content is very rarefied, to say the least. However there is the occasional glimmer of worth, should you ignore the dodgy politics, and the awful piffle it publishes under the name of poetry ~ really, it is on the whole abominable. But it is worthwhile having a look-see for the free trial offer. So there you have it. If theediscerning had written about the LRB in the style of the LRB, he would have taken eight months, and
discussed it in a very awkward way, with far too many references to obscure eighteenth century things, people and opinions, and probably replicated the entire contents in summary form, only to then pointedly ignore the common habit of actually stating something's likeability or worth at the end of the review. It was hard enough as it is to write about it normally, so forgive him if he now goes on holiday for a fortnight. And not with anyone from the Personals, either.
Essays for most of us simply mean the things we had to write in School. We certainly wouldn't want to read them for pleasure. However there is long tradition of essay writing in English and of people reading them for fun. Fortunately the writers in the London Review of Books (hereafter LRB) are skilful enough to make reading their work a pleasure at least for me, who likes that sort of thing. If reading a long article in the Sunday supplement of the Times or the Guardian is too much like hard work this particular magazine is probably not for you CONTENT: Essays (normally about a dozen) Poems (2 or3) and the occasional piece of literary fiction. This magazine is not going to be for everyone. But then I find the Sun as boring as watching a dead fly not do anything. Each to their own. Most (but not all) of the essays are (as you can guess from the name of the magazine) reviews of books. They are not reviews in the English class story report/potted plot kind of way. Rather the writers use the books as a jumping off point to discuss and enlighten. The best of them return to the book itself telling you of its merits and its faults. Some of the most interesting essays are those where the writers disagree with the work in question or find at least parts of it unconvincing. A well-argued debate often ensues on the letters page. Again the best of the writers are able to comprehend a position even if they find they disagree with it but of course this is not always so. The poems tend to be in a contemporary literary style and according to my unscientific observations seem to throw certain names up fairly often. I would not buy the magazine for the poetry but it provides a nice break from the pages of prose and a necessary outlet (and payment) for poets who are (as a group) underrecognised and underrewarded. In addition there are the shorter columns usually written by different contributors each issue. They include a section
of amusing literary news in Short Cuts, and In ___ or At the ___, a column from some event or locality in the world and the endpiece the Diary -- a first person account of an interesting time and/or place. STYLE: The style is literary and fairly 'highbrow'. There are plenty of long sentences and words to look up in a dictionary. It is not dry and academic at all. The essays are aimed at the intelligent general reader and the style reflects this. These are read to be enjoyed and are as much examples of literary craftsmanship themselves as the many of the objects reviewed. In this the magazine follows in the tradition of the Essay (with a capital E) handed down by Bacon, Johnson and Fielding via Orwell, Huxley and Woolf. SIZE AND SHAPE: Stapled tabloid format (ie twice the size of an average magazine albeit thinner, or half the size of a broadsheet newspaper). This can make it harder to manage when reading but it is light (newsprint rather than glossy) and if you can read the Guardian in the train you can cope with this. There are usually about 40 pages in an issue. Most of the essays are 1-2 pages long but many are longer. At the back you will find advertising for bookshops and talks and university courses and suchlike. POLITICS?: As is common with many highbrow publications the LRB has a definite political slant. I don't think it is a bad or destructive thing but it worth knowing about. Nothing in this world is completely neutral. As is also common with many more intellectual outlets the LRB has strong Marxist tendencies. Don't let this put you off, the quality of the writing remains, but you are likely to find more attacks on Neoliberal economics than support from it and a highly sceptical line towards Western governments and motives. This is (in my Christian, Democratic Socialist opinion) is a useful exercise. I sometimes wish some contributors would be equally critical of other countries faul
ts wh en they do deserve it. But it is better for reflection and criticism to begin at home; else we shall end up in that famous situation of pulling a speck out of our neighbour?s eye while having log firmly planted in our own. Perhaps one danger with political causes is that it always easier to believe in the innocence and righteousness of those whose morality was never put to the test in the throes of victory. We see Trotsky as an idealist, Stalin as a murderer; Che Guevara as a Martyr, Castro as a politician; the Mujahedin as freedom fighters, Al Qaeda as terrorists. CONCLUSION: I enjoy reading the LRB very much even though it can be pretty heavy. My family tend to pick out interesting articles and concentrate on topics they prefer. I tend to read the whole thing (unless an essay is very long and boring -- after all this is not a chore!). I freely admit I never read them 'on time' I have a backlog of 6-8 issues stacked up. But this gives me something to do in the holidays. The only other downside to the LRB is the price. Despite the Arts Council subsidy it still costs £2.95 for a single issue or over £70 for a years subscription (24 issues). This isn't terribly expensive (considering what it is) but adds up when you are a poor student like me. But if you like the English Essay and can't beg, borrow or steal one I would recommend the LRB very highly. But (like any more specialised magazine, eg Beekeeping World or Jam Making Gazette) it is certainly not a general interest publication. It is not going to be for everyone.