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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

London Review of Books

Sunday, March 15, 2009

When I graduated from my first degree in 2003, to take a year out working and travelling before returning for a Masters, I realised that I needed to keep my reading and writing skills ticking over if I was to slip back easily into the literary life. To take care of the writing side of things, I set up this website (and how different it looked back then!), whilst for my reading, alongside my bedside stash of novels, I decided to take out a subscription to the London Review of Books.

Since then, I have resubscribed without hesitation every year - until now. My lasped subsription is no reflection on its content per se, for it has remained one of the few bastions of the art of the extended literary essay (Andrew O'Hagan perhaps being its star contributor in this line). I used to look forward to its arrival every other Thursday: tearing through the thin cellophane to reveal the latest Peter Campbell cover picture; then nosying the brief biographies of all the contributors; then turning from the final diary entry to browse the infamous personal ads. For a celebrity gossip monger in denial, these were a few of its little pleasures.

In between the picture and the personals was more serious content. The LRB essay is typically written a degree below the academic but a pitch above the popular. Encountering something controversial - such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's "The Israel Lobby," or Terry Eagleton's lambasting of Richard Dawkins - was thrilling, because one knew oneself to be among the select group of subscribers who would read this first, in full and in original, before the controversy spread, distorted into sound-bites, across the web or the broadsheets. On that note, I always have to smile wryly when I see Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader promoted in bookshops - we LRB readers (for whom Bennett's New Year diaries are a special highlight) got there six months before hand, when this novella was published in full in the LRB.

But what I most valued it for was (or, I suppose, still is) its eclecticism. One could be reading Eamon Duffy on the Henretian Reformation one minute, then discovering the history of science with Simon Schaffer, or learning about legal issues with Philippe Sands the next. It was this diversity that I found most useful in relation to my research, as I continued to take the magazine in my postgraduate life. Time and again, looking for an unusual take on a well-worn subject, I would be sent in an unexpected direction by the LRB. For example, my essay on Heart of Darkness and Victorian Anthropology is a case in point, because it began when I read a review of a biography of Malinowski. University research can be a narrow-minded exercise, but the LRB continually helped me to broaden my vision (much as, a few years back, I pondered whether the content of my PhD thesis was going to be determined by the random collections of my local Oxfam).

A couple of years ago, when still a keen fan of the LRB, I was having a drink with the novelist A.S. Byatt (as you do - my supervisor happened to know her) when Byatt complained that she did not have time for the LRB. "Surely one should make time for such an institution?" I thought back then. How naive I was in those halcyon days at the start of PhD life. In the final stages of my PhD last term, or when straining under a teaching load, such acts of temporal alchemy are purely wishful thinking.

At around 30 000 words per issue (nerd that I am, I pasted every article from the past few online issues into Word to reach this figure), the LRB equates to a small paperback book. This may not seem a lot, but when one also has novels and articles to read for work, books to review, and wants a few pleasureable paperbacks on the go as well, this is quite a load. And, whereas at one time I would happily snuggle up with some of Jerry Fodor's analytical philosophy, after a hard day at the office I need a novel to keep me that little bit more alert - otherwise I'll be out within ten minutes. Having said that, I do terribly miss Jenny Diski, whom I imagine to be cuddly and know to be cutely afraid of spiders. I am sure one day that she, if not all the other writers on the paper, may one day be able to tempt me back within its sheets.

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Posted by Alistair at 1:08 pm


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