The Best of Brit Lit

Each week the editor of the Times Literary Supplement picks his favorite reads. This week: love and hope from the book world, the sympathies of J.M. Coetzee’s novels, and Rome’s most decadent emperor.

02.28.11 9:32 AM ET

Whither the Book?

According to one authority on the publishing industry, some 450,000 new titles appear every year—but are they best read in print or online? Do the pages go from left to right, or right to left? Should they be stacked horizontally or stood vertically? Why the digitizing technologists of Google Books et al not "anti-book boors" but possibly the "last romantics"? These are questions that Paul Duguid asks in this week's TLS, in a review of three new books that, taken together, "embrace the bundle of forms and genres on which the term book confers a spurious uniformity." While the bibliomaniac Jacques Bonnet welcomes us, via The Phantoms of the Bookshelves, into a delightful, idiosyncratic world created by his "monstrous" obsession with books, the publisher Irving Louis Horowitz charges libraries with abusing their "fair use" privileges, and argues in Publishing as a Vocation for an extension to existing copyright laws. John B. Thompson, in Merchants of Culture, offers a calmer account of contemporary publishing than Horowitz's, in which Amazon, Apple, and Google are trying to join, rather than destroy, the books business.

J.M. Coetzee’s Sympathies

No writer of our own time is a greater master of human cruelty than J.M. Coetzee, argues Stephen Abell: "he is our best authority on suffering, our most credible literary authority on the body." This verdict comes at the beginning of a discussion of four new books on the Afrikaner novelist, whose connections between pain and truth so dominate his fiction. Fiction itself is under close scrutiny in novels such as Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Foe (in which a woman wants to persuade Daniel Defoe to tell her story for her). Can we really achieve "an extension of our sympathies," as George Eliot suggested, by reading novels? Or are novels better thought of as a "testing ground" for all the important relationships in our lives?

The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact or Fiction?. By Leonardo de Arrizabalaga. 420 pages. Cambridge University Press. $99.

The Most Decadent Emperor of All

The Emperor Elagabalus (or as he was known to the Victorians, "Heliogabalus") was famed for suffocating his dinner-guests under rose petals, as well as for other acts of murder and mutilation, some of them upon himself. He also, the Roman historians tell us, married a vestal virgin, planned a mass campaign of child sacrifice, and was murdered at the instigation of his own grandmother. That's plenty of pain; but where's the truth? This week, Mary Beard reviews a new book that aims to sort out the fact from the fiction in the reign of this "teenaged puppet" from the third century AD. She is unimpressed by an excessively arithmetical and rationalist account of this little-studied monster, preferring the picture of "third-century sadism" made famous by the Victorian painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema—a picture in which " luxuriant and deadly roses" rain down elegantly on the reclining guests.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

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.