Atlantic Books

This is a remarkable book – not so much for its subject matter as for the intensity of the passionate involvement of one writer with another. From the beginning, it is clear that this is not a conventional biography or book of criticism. A.N. Wilson approaches Charles Dickens through seven different mysteries about his life. The principal one, which underlies the whole book, is the mystery of what makes Dickens such an utterly compelling writer.

... (read more)

July 1970. A graduate student in English at Columbia University was feeling bogged down in her PhD topic. She was only a year or so in and reckoned that there was still time for her to make a switch from medieval sermons to a modern author. She wrote on index cards the names of numerous writers she liked, including James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. She then arranged them alphabetically. Beckett came out on top (presumably Auden didn’t make the cut). ‘That was how my life in biography began,’ explains Deirdre Bair, who died in April 2020, in time, fortuitously, to see this book published late last year.

... (read more)

What is the value of useless knowledge? One of the by-products of the rise of artificial intelligence is that the realm of what one really needs to know to function in society is ever shrinking. Wikipedia makes learning facts completely redundant. Pub trivia competitions now seem a fundamentally anachronistic form of entertainment, like watching a jousting tournament in the age of artillery. One can appreciate the skill, but one also knows that its time has come and gone.

... (read more)

Whistleblowing has a long history. The Ancient Greeks had a term for it: parrhēsia, or fearless speech. In the seventh century, a British king introduced the world’s first whistleblowing law, encouraging his citizens to report those who worked on the Sabbath. Ever since the phrase ‘whistleblower’ was coined in the 1970s, the concept has gained renewed salience. In an era of widespread fraud and corruption, those prepared to speak up perform an essential service to society.

... (read more)

At first glance, the premise of this book seems dubious. Katharine Smyth, an American woman in her mid-twenties, turns to the life and work of Virginia Woolf for solace after the death of her father. There is no doubt that Woolf writes brilliantly about death, particularly in the novel Smyth focuses on, To the Lighthouse (1927), which fictionalises the death of Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen. But what comfort could Smyth hope to find in the work of a writer who herself refuses any of the usual consolations? After losing her mother and her elder half-sister, Stella, in her early teens, and then her father, Leslie, and her elder brother, Thoby, in her twenties, Woolf knew that there was no solace to be found. Her only comfort was that at least ‘the gods (as I used to phrase it) were taking one seriously’.

... (read more)