Letters of Introduction: An A-z of Cultural Heroes and Legends by Kevin Jackson
Jackson, an accomplished journalist, author of the definitive biography of Humphrey Jennings, the wonderful Invisible Forms (A Guide to Literary Curiosities) and a BFI modern classic on Withnail & I, amongst others, is an entertaining, breezy writer. Each of his chapters is a clear primer on its subject (being idiosyncratic, doesn't prevent him from being thorough) and is readable in a way that encyclopedia entries (or, indeed, cribs) often are not. The chapters are amusing, without being tiring, and light, without being frivolous or whimsical. Read from cover to cover (as I read it), Jackson makes a powerful case for this kind of factual presentation being used far more often. Having to hone a life or a work or a movement into 26 categories requires judicious editing (and wide reading). And by the end of Letters we realise just what a trustworthy guide Jackson is.
Of Hildeberg we learn N is for Naturkunde: "She also applies herself to geology ... though some of her observations on the creatures of land, sea and air now seem less than rigorous (she discourses at some length on the unicorn) the range of her learning is none the less impressive and her powers of observation frequently acute". Of Nietzsche we hear: "One of the most interesting pieces of evidence in the case of 'Nietzsche: Antichrist of Anti-Semite?' is his lifelong enthusiasm of the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)". About Dali, within the Surrealist alphabet, we get: "Still, alas, far and away the best known of all Surrealists ... (a) verdict on [his] career as fair-minded and temperate as it is crushing, comes from the historian Ruth Brandon: 'Dali, who might have achieved greatness, opted instead for popularity.'"
This is the rare kind of book that you get fed up of quoting (there is so much) and simply end up buying for people. Carcanet should certainly be congratulated for publishing such a treasure trove and Jackson ordered by higher powers to keep producing books like it.
(In addition to Letters a kind of additional chapter is available in the form of a beautifully produced, tiny, A6 book A Ruskin Alphabet published by Worple Press. In D is for Ruskin we learn: "Dante was one of the writers Ruskin read and re-read throughout his mature years, and who helped form his view not only of literature but of the universe. He said that the 'best wisdom' of the ages has 'been spoken in ... strange enigmas - Dante's, Homer's, Hesiod's, Virgil's, Spenser's.")