Habitual Mood

The Anti-Booklist (Redhead & McLeish)

Habitual Mood

Those familiar with Twitter of yore might recall how, every three weeks or so, some colossal bore would sidle onto the timeline with an implied sly grin on their chops and say something like: "Confession time: which so-called 'classic' books do you HATE but feel like you're not allowed to SAY you hate? Go!" This would be the cue for several thousand people to vent their long-suppressed rage toward Lord of the Flies or The Catcher In the Rye, or whichever slim novel, heavy with digestible thematic content, their English teacher had sadistically obliged them to read in high school, an experience that "scarred them for life" and "put them off reading forever" and left them unable to express themselves without hyperbole.

It was always an undignified spectacle, and a pointless one. I've read plenty of terrible books, books that I hated with the fury of a thousand furious tweets, but I have learned that at some point, ideally in the brief moment between slamming the book shut and punting it through the window into the mouth of a passing walrus, you must let go of your anger. It's not good for you! Also, who cares? Encountering things you don't like is a part of, well, encountering things.

That said, literary history is replete with famous authors who couldn't stand the work of other famous authors. Twain loathed Austen. Tolstoy took time out from bloviating about universal love to diss Shakespeare. Nabokov's personal Pantheon was limited to Nikolai Gogol, Aleksandr Pushkin, and plucky upstart Vladimir Nabokov. The 1981 book I'm supposedly reviewing here, The Anti-Booklist, grew out of a British radio show where writers of varying degrees of repute were invited to nominate which books they would have sent to the bottom of the Atlantic on the Titanic. Not counting the editors, there are forty-five pontificating luminaries assembled here, just ten of whom I have heard of - and one of them is David Irving.

Having done my best to depict myself as a paragon of cool moderation, I have to confess that The Anti-Booklist had me gnashing my teeth and leaping from my chair to punch the wall like David Foster Wallace on date night. Sometimes I was driven by sheer bloodlust - Yes, Beryl Bainbridge! Take Freud to the cleaners! - at other times I was stricken with disbelief, for instance when playwright John Osborne looks back in anger at "displaced bullshit artist" Nabokov's "overpowering inability to write".

Elsewhere you have attempted jokes that don't come off (future jailbird Jeffrey Archer's "funny" spellings in his dig at the Oxford English Dictionary), and parodies of highbrow touchstones (Woolf, Joyce) that are at least as tedious as anything those writers ever put down, albeit more concise. Dull books receive dull critiques: perhaps in 1981 people were exercised about the inadequacies of Who's Who and The Good Food Guide but it's difficult to muster any feelings one way or the other at this distance. On the positive side, there are some wonderful take-downs - Diana Bishop on Agatha Christie's appalling writing for the stage is a highlight, as is Patricia Beer's demolition of whatever was left in 1981 of F.R. Leavis's legacy - and even some attempts at genuine literary criticism by people who have clearly read and thought about the objects of their loathing (Brian Inglis on The Golden Bough; Kenneth McLeish on Hemingway; Michael Schmidt on Gide). There are even valiant attempts to recognise the importance of certain texts, even while consigning them to oblivion, as in Frederic Raphael's sober consideration of Plato's fundamentally unpleasant yet vital Republic.

Then there's David Irving. By 1981 Irving was well on the path to full blown Holocaust denial, and here he indulges the irony of condemning rival historian Joachim Fest's alleged use of "uncritically questionable documents, faked diaries and concocted memoirs". A truly wretched human being: if anything in this book deserves a spot in steerage on the hypothetical Titanic, it's Irving's work, if not Irving himself.

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