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Reviewing the Future: Will Self’s The Book of Dave

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a dystopian novel about a new religion

Toxic masculinity. Patriarchy. Incel. Words like these are all over the internet of late, describing a perceived rise in misogynistic behaviours and attitudes among young men growing up in Britain, America, and elsewhere. Coupled with this is the worryingly small percentage of people – women as well as men – who self-identify as ‘feminists’ (just 7% of Britons, according to one survey). Could the utopian dream of gender equality, which appeared to be making some headway as the millennium came into sight, be retreating ever further into the distance?

One novelist who has explored such a question is Will Self. The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future (2006) reflects current anxieties surrounding the role of the father in a postmillennial world, issues pertaining to divorce and child custody, and the clash between altruism and self-interest. Religion, too, is a central theme: The Book of Dave projects the present-day fear and anger of the titular father-protagonist, Dave Rudman, into a future vision of London in which Dave’s ‘Book’ – written with the sole purpose of providing moral instruction for his son – has been taken up as a sacred text by Londoners dwelling in a neomedieval postdiluvian world five centuries hence. Read the rest of this entry

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Journeying through Language: Around the World in 80 Words

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys a world tour of the English language courtesy of Paul Anthony Jones’s new book

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but ‘they’, of course are wrong. They’re especially wrong in the case of Paul Anthony Jones’s books of language trivia, which are becoming as much of an annual event – at least at IL Towers – as Jools’s Hootenanny or eating too much Christmas dinner. Last year’s book was a year’s guide to the English language – a yearbook of forgotten words, going through the calendar from 1st January to 31st December – and sported a beautifully designed cover that made it equally ideal for putting on show on the coffee table as hiding away as a private pleasure in the smallest room. And Jones’s new book, Around the World in 80 Words: A Journey Through the English Language (Elliott and Thompson), which is a geographical rather than chronological journey through the English language, sports an equally delightful blue-and-gold cover which matches perfectly the glittering facts to be found within. Read the rest of this entry

The Mabinogion: The Big Book of Medieval Welsh Legends

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys Sioned Davies’ new translation of the Mabinogion, Wales’s book of myths

‘Brothers transformed into animals of both sexes who bring forth children; dead men thrown into a cauldron who rise the next day; a woman created out of flowers, transformed into an owl for infidelity; a king turned into a wild boar for his sins – these are just some of the magical stories that together make up the Mabinogion.’

These words, which open Sioned Davies’ introduction to her new translation of the Mabinogion, offer a delightful taste of the feast that follows, the collection of Welsh legends featuring magic, heroism, and transformation. Especially the latter. When the Roman poet Ovid sought a way to connect the Graeco-Roman myths, he seized upon metamorphosis – transformations, chiefly physical; though not exclusively so – and in doing so he highlighted the importance that changes of all sort, magical and corporeal, play in many myths around the world. The same can be said of the eleven medieval legends that make up the Mabinogion, which were probably first written down in around 1060-1120, although even that we cannot be certain about. Read the rest of this entry