The Best of Brit Lit

The editor of the Times Literary Supplement picks great reads from his mag. This week: a survey of intellectuals’ views on the Arab-Israeli conflict, a history of the finger, and Robin Lane Fox’s unconventional approach to gardening.

01.05.11 11:45 PM ET

Public Intellectuals and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

We start the year with questions: "Is there anything new to be learned from the outpouring of works devoted to examining and re-examining the origins of the Israel-Palestine dispute? And to what extent does each new publication merely contribute, unhelpfully, to a rehash of irreconcilable claims and predictable denunciations?" In the TLS this week, Neil Caplan considers three new works on the origins and complexities of the conflict, and wonders whether it is "the role of scholars to pronounce... on the rights and wrongs of this complex and protracted dispute? Or to become engaged in advocating the case of one party over the other? Some may see these as legitimate functions of the public intellectual. But others would argue that such an approach detracts from disinterested historical scholarship that ought to be helping us understand better why this dispute is so difficult to resolve."    

The Finger. By Angus Trimble. 320 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.

What We Do With Our Fingers?

Australia’s cricketers, pondering another two years without the coveted Ashes after their failure to beat England in the current series, might yearn for a player like Hugh Trumble, ancestor of Angus Trumble, whose book The Finger is reviewed by Ferdinand Mount. Trumble’s "uncommonly long fingers" helped him to spin the ball prodigiously, an Antipodean art now apparently fallen into desuetude. "An old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon male can go through life with his hands in his pockets" claims Mount; and yet, "our amazingly ingenious carpals and metacarpals" still get up to all sorts of things—"gouging, grabbing, grubbing, punching, gripping, picking, smacking, chucking, to name but a few."

Thoughtful Gardening. By Robin Lane Fox. 384 pages. Basic Books. $29.95.

The Thoughtful Gardener

"Gardening is a thoughtful activity, but thinkers tend to look down on it," writes Robin Lane Fox, university reader in ancient history and garden master of New College, Oxford. Thoughtful gardeners think before choosing and planting, visit gardens in distant places, and reflect on flowers in fiction and poetry, writes Jennifer Potter, reviewing Lane Fox's book for the TLS. Not everyone will agree with his methods—"He feeds Prozac to badgers and sugared milk laced with weedkiller to rabbits"—but his "barbed yet cultured foray into the garden will surely provoke reflection".

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Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq War.