Posted by: Corri van de Stege | May 19, 2009

Bryan Appleyard, serious books and then those Swedish Writers

Richard Overy Britain between the WarsA few weeks ago, Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times, 10 May 2009,  interviewed Richard Overy, a historian, whose new book  The Morbid Age: Britain between the Wars has just been published.  This book ‘is the first book-length exposition of his antimaterialist view that ideas and culture make history, and that no grand historical narrative can be understood without them’

As usual, Appleyard’s interviews are thoughtful essays on current ideas and dilemmas, related to culture, progress (or not), history, science, etc.  and Overy’s book appears to provide plenty of food for thought.  I always enjoy reading Appleyard’s reviews, or interviews, on serious non-fiction books, because they show there are still so many of these books being written,  non-fiction books.  Only last Saturday (16 May), the Guardian wondered about the decline of the ‘serious’ book, the quality non-fiction book, asking whether booksellers are more interested in clever price promotions than clever books.  There are different views on this, with some arguing that the demand is there, still.  Andy Beckett in the Guardian notes that ‘the crisis in serious non-fiction has probably been overdone.  There is a crisis in the British bookselling, thanks to the internet, the recession and the particular competititveness of the British high street…. .. Some non-fiction genres, such as literary biography, are in decline, at least for now.  But other serious genres, such as economics and nature writing, are on the rise….’ 

I have recently bought a number of non-fiction books, one of which is Cultural Amnesia by Clive James.  It has the subtitle ‘Notes in the margin of my time’ and is a collection of essays on  authors and great minds, artists and scientists, ranging through the alphabet from Anna Akhmatova and Louis Armstrong to Aleksandr Zinoviev and Stefan Zweig.  Too much to read in one week, even one month or probably a year.  It’s a book to dip into and ponder.  After all, it took James 40 years to write, building up from notes on books and articles he read, music he enjoyed, etc.   Such books are  for keeps, on the bookshelf, to be picked up when the mood takes you.   

Another non-fiction book that I started reading is The Storm by Vince Cable which I hope will explain to me exactly what the credit crunch is really all about…  I am told that if anyone can make sense out of it and help you understand some of what is going on in the banks, then it is Vince Cable. 

Neither of these are books that you carry around with you though, they don’t easily slide into your handbag or briefcase, and they require too much clear and focused attention for being good bed time reading, when all you want to do is happily sail away with some thoughts on the fiction book you’re reading.  I need a really long long holiday to read these books…

Do you enjoy reading non-fiction?  

And then the Swedish writers: They’re up and coming, Swedish writers, translated into English.  In the same Culture Section of the Sunday Times on 10th May,  Joan Smith discussed Hakan Nesser’s new book ‘Woman with Birthmark and noted that despite the reputation of Swedes and in particular the rather sceptical view about translated fiction in the UK, Nesser laughs a lot as he has plenty to be amused about;  the sucess of a number of Swedish authoris is ‘staggering’.  On the back of this review of Swedish writers I bought Stieg Larsson’s The Girl wih the Dragon Tattoo, the first in a trilogy.  Apparently Larsson is now the most widely read novelist in Europe.  Definitely good for the holiday pile!  In due course, I will let you know.   As a bit of gosspipy aside, the Sunday Times on 17 May notes that the family of Larson are now fighting over his fortune: he died of a heart attack, leaving his partner for 30 years (they were not married) without a penny because he had not made a will and his father and brother are running away with the money, leaving her to ponder the the title of his last book (to be published).  A suggestion, a commentator noted, might be ‘The Widow who Dreamed of Taking Revenge’?

And as far as the here and now is concerned: I’m reading Zoe Heller’s The Believers and am enjoying it very much.  Perhaps I’m climbing out of the depth of that ‘spring tiredness’ that I suffered from so badly these last few weeks, even if the weather is still apallingly miserable.  This is a book I’d like to recommend:

Zoe Heller - The Believers



  1. This is the first I’ve heard of “The Morbid Age.” It sounds fantastic. I gather that it won’t be released in Canada for another month, but I’ll snap up a copy as soon as it is available!

  2. I hadn’t read about The Morbid Age, but it does sound worth a look.

    Cultural Amnesia is a treasure trove of book which as you say, is great to dip into. I don’t know where Clive James finds the time!

    I really enjoyed Notes on a scandal, so am glad to hear you recommend The Believers. Another for the TBR pile.

  3. Dear Sea, you always find such good books. Oh, yes, reading the non-ficiton you mention does indeed require a long holiday. In fact, all bosses should offer employees reading holidays where you absolutely have to take two weeks and go off and read, nothing else, really.

    Yes, I like non-fiction but like you, I need time to read it OR, I run willy nilly through it, only gleaning bits and pieces, which really isn’t fair to the author.

    I will confess that a lot of the non-fiction I read is about writing! Sounds odd, maybe, but I love reading about other people’s writing process and experiences. and I really do enjoy a good memoire, it doesn’t have to be a famous person or celebrity of any kind. I just enjoy life stories and the humor of it all.

  4. The Morbid Age sounds fascinating. Glad you are climbing out of the doldrums!

  5. I have The Believers in my btr pile. Sigh. One day I should get there. That’s sad about Steig Larsson’s partner. The book is excellent! Enjoy your weekend.

  6. All – I left a response, to all of you, whilst travelling. Only, it somehow or other has disappeared even though I was convinced I had posted! When staying overnight in hotels or whilst accessing the internet on the train, I use 3G. This is not the quickest way of accessing th einternet, I can tell you, but it usually works for my e-mails It hasn’t for my blog….
    My apologies! Humble apologies even. I don’t like to ignore friends who take the trouble responding to my writing.
    I have meanwhile posted again and will do better responding to you next time – that’s a promise!!

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