Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: a gentleman’s nastiness exposed, a historian on digital lit, and Churchill’s military weakness.
Google Books or Great Books?
The formidable Renaissance scholar Anthony Grafton has entered the debate on how the Internet will impact upon the world of scholarship and scholarly entertainment to come. In Worlds Made by Words, Grafton impresses Peter Green with his personal commitment to comprehending the details of our virtual literary worlds. Yet the further one trawls into the past, the clearer it becomes to both men that “whatever happens on screen, for a long time the great libraries of the Northern Hemisphere will remain irreplaceable.”
Isaiah Berlin, the Dictaphone Don
Sir Isaiah Berlin died in 1997 as a much-admired man in Britain, a philosopher friend of dukes and divas, famed for his erudition, eloquence, and wit. He had once famously divided the Great Thinkers of all time into Foxes, who knew many things, and Hedgehogs, who knew one big thing. Arguments about foxy Shakespeare and prickly Plato soon became as ubiquitous at smart dinner tables as the man himself. He wrote about the history of ideas, Russian literature, and the evils of communism but, according to A.N. Wilson in this week's TLS, his reputation as an elegant “good thing” will not be helped by the dictation of observations of his friends into a tape recorder and his well-meaning executor's decision to publish some of the most snobbish and bitchy of them. Wilson finds a feast of nastiness in the man who increasingly enjoyed nights with Greta Garbo and the Queen Mother more than days in the library. And the more he thinks about it, the “Hedgehog vs. Fox” thing is nothing more than a party game either.
We now have what may be the 1,635th book to be written on the subject of Winston Churchill. Carlo D'Este's contribution is called Warlord and Sir Michael Howard, Britain's foremost military historian, praises D'Este's grasp of Churchill's weaknesses as well as strengths in this role. The myth of “the Special Relationship” that Churchill invented is briskly demolished. “Wherever Churchill himself was in a position to direct military operations,” as he was at Anzio or in the Aegean, “the result was a disaster.”
Peter Stothard is editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He was editor of The Times of London from 1992-2002. He writes about ancient and modern literature and is the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.