During a break at a conference, I was talking with a bright young woman who worked in the high—tech sector. She appraised me through the lenses of her exceedingly hip eyeglasses.
“So,” she asked, “your magazine is about . . . books?”
Ah. That pause was telling. Clearly she imagined that I was engaged in an antiquarian enterprise. Instead of “books,” she might as well have said “heraldry.”
I love what I do, and I am always happy to talk about it. I launched into an answer.
No, not really, I told her. Not about books, much as I love books—indeed, I’m besotted with them. No, the magazine I edit is about Chinese poetry in the 9th century, the problem of human—waste disposal, the great sea of Kansas (when Kansas had a sea) and the strange creatures that dwelt therein, the faith of Shakespeare, the nature of marriage, Pentecostalism in Africa and Central America, a race riot in Tulsa, the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, the films of Akira Kurosawa, and much more.
Most of the magazine, I went on to say, consists of reviews or review—like pieces that take a book or several books as an opportunity to think about some aspect of the unimaginably vast reality in which we find ourselves.
By this point, as you might guess, I had reached full steam, but alas, the eyes of the young woman whose question I was trying to answer had begun to shift here and there, as if seeking escape. (“Unimaginably vast reality”: was I some kind of religious nut? Where was this heading?) I switched to the subject of e—books; we exchanged a few banalities and parted amicably.
I can’t see your eyes, dear reader. Let’s assume that they aren’t glazing over yet— that you are willing to consider for the moment the notion of a magazine as a microcosm of the world, the universe, the whole shebang.
What do you have in your garage, your attic, your dorm—room closet, the back seat of your car, or those other catchalls of this and that? In our garage, you’d find bug spray, badminton gear, bicycles, and boxes of books (many boxes of books), along with charcoal for the barbecue, old letters, and large bags of birdseed for the feeder (secured under tight lids to foil invaders), among other things.
Seen in one aspect, the world is just like that, except that there’s much more stuff. Everything, in fact.
A miscellany such as this resembles a magazine. The word’s origins are Arabic: makhāzin, which is the plural of makhzan, storehouse. All magazines are miscellaneous, but some magazines are more so than others: in Modern Ferret, all the various bits and pieces are about, well, ferrets. In the genre of the review (as instanced by magazines such as The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, The Literary Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Threepenny Review, Books & Culture, and many others, including a growing number of webzines), miscellany thrives.
I’ve just gone down to the basement and reached a hand into a huge stack of back issues of various mags, extracting—at random—the TLS for January 10, 2010. Silly, I know, to hang on to these when, increasingly, archives are digitally searchable. And I won’t be able to keep them forever. But there are advantages to holding a back issue in your hand.
This particular issue begins with the distinguished scholar Wendy Doniger reviewing William Dalrymple’s book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (the striking photo on the cover of the issue is keyed to this piece). That’s followed by a related review (wittily titled “Older— Time Religion”) of a Dictionary of Hinduism from Oxford University Press. After a page devoted to Letters (this section is one of the glories of the TLS), another pair of reviews: the philosopher Roger Scruton (always worth reading) on Andrew Linzey’s Why Animal Suffering Matters and Jennie Erin Smith on Paolo Cavalieiri’s The Death of the Animal: A Dialogue.
Because the TLS is the preeminent publication of its kind in the English—speaking world, the reviewer assigned a given book is often a first—rate expert on the subject at hand. Thus, Doniger on Dalrymple and Scruton (who has written a spirited defense of fox—hunting) on Linzey. And so too with the next pieces, in which the philosopher Barry Dainton reviews a book on “temporal representation” by Robin Le Poidevin and the naturalist Richard Fortey handles with his tweezers a book called The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible Is Scientifically Accurate. Other pieces, like the one that follows, are by all—rounders like Jonathan Keates, who thrive on miscellany: here he reviews three books by the 19th—century Portuguese writer Josè Maria Eça de Queiroz. A companion review follows, taking up a two—volume history of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire.
By this point, we are only through page 12 of the issue’s 32 closely packed pages. There is much more to come—including pieces on the Nobel Prize—winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk and the American novelist Richard Powers, who is quite good enough to win a Nobel, whether or not he actually does. Then a review of David Slavitt’s translation of Orlando Furioso and John Taylor (that unsurpassed guide to modern and contemporary French literature) on the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet, not to mention the sociologist Bernice Martin on David Hempton’s Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt (a review from near the end of the issue that could be read profitably side—by—side with Doniger on Dalrymple’s Nine Lives.) But you get the idea.
Had you started on this issue early in what was then the new year of 2010, curled up in bed or crammed in an airline seat, ensconced at Starbucks or in a favourite spot at your local library, you would have surveyed an unpredictable and never—to—be—repeated juxtaposition of subjects. To do so requires certain habits of mind. You must be willing to read at whim, as Alan Jacobs suggests in his splendid book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. You must set aside a whole range of immediately pressing concerns. You must entertain an interest in subjects you may not ever pursue, and opinions that differ from your own. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you will necessarily read everything in the issue. But if you read only for your “specialty,” or only for debates on certain Big Questions, you’ll miss what magazines such as this distinctively have to offer.
And they have a great deal to offer. Read the TLS for a year—in its traditional form, or via the Kindle, as Alan Jacobs gets it—and you will learn a great deal in a delightfully unsystematic way. Much of what you learn will be bits and scraps. You don’t know how they will come in handy, how they will connect with other bits over time—you are hardly even conscious of what you have learned—and that not knowing is essential. In some ways, I think, this kind of reading resembles a child’s omnivorous “taking in” of the world.
And some of what you learn will prompt you quite consciously to learn more. Each review in this issue of the TLS we’ve been examining takes its place in a larger conversation and issues an implicit invitation to you to join that conversation. Reading Barry Dainton on Robin Le Poidevin, you are invited to enter a very animated and sometimes contentious conversation on the nature of time. Before you know it, you may have plunged into the vast literature on this subject. You may be struck by the way in which many contemporary films play with time in some way or another, and the vogue for time—travel in fiction. How are the various time—speculations of philosophers, physicists, filmmakers, and novelists connected—or not? What about the theological conversation on time? Is God indeed “timeless,” “outside time”? The philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff has argued that “God’s ontological immutability is not a part of the explicit teaching of the biblical writers. What the biblical writers teach is that God is faithful without beginning or end, not that none of God’s aspects is temporal.” One review can start you on years of reading and reflection.
At their best, in an unceasing flow of casually staged juxtapositions that put the Surrealists to shame, such magazines encourage an awareness of the many—sidedness of things, a mingled sense of irony and awe, a sharp taste both of the absurdity and of the inexhaustible richness of creation—and this is true even when the governing editorial intelligence would disavow any such intent.
Of course there are snares and temptations as well. Everything that is good about “the review” as a genre can be perverted. In his book Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, Paul Griffiths has written about the vice of curiositas, “to be distinguished from virtuous forms of the desire to know, which, beginning in the third century, began to be called studiositas.” Although I disagree with Griffiths at many points (or come at the subject from a perspective so different that it’s difficult to speak of agreement or disagreement), I would strongly recommend this book.
Reading of the kind I’ve been discussing can easily slide into an intellectual dandyism. And there’s an ever—present danger of grotesquely inflated self—esteem, as if we too have suddenly become deeply knowledgeable about Hinduism, the history of Portugal, and the poetry of Philippe Jaccottet—universal savants— and as if such knowledge somehow exalts us above the common run of humanity.
This calls for vigilance, but it should not lead us to shy away from the enterprise. We are not creators, Tolkien said, but subcreators: an ugly word, yes, but useful. The little worlds we make in imitation and homage are bound to be flawed. Yet even the artful miscellany to be found in a single issue of a single magazine— gathered from a storehouse that seems, as in a fairy tale, to be always full, no matter how much is taken out—gives us a foretaste of the Great Feast to come.