The Culture of the TLS

Why do I read the TLS?  Who is its ideal reader? Is she a professor emerita with a Proust monomania, or an Eastern European immigrant barista who haunts Bloomsbury bookshops?

No, I am my own demographic. (We all are.) As a cranky, working-class, state-university-educated feminist, I have constructed a fantasy world of the TLS.  The poorly-paid critics and editors smoke hand-rolled cigarettes as they type on old-fashioned typewriters, wearing twin sets, buns, and ballet shoes, like Anita Brookner’s spinsters,  or chatting pretentiously like the poet Dorothy Merlin and her savvy bookseller husband Cosmo in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s  satiric novel, Cork Street, Next to the Hatter.  They are all, in short, living in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Yes, I love the worlds of Brookner and Johnson, but I understand that the TLS is nothing like that.  I subscribe to the TLS for three reasons: (a) the  reviews of books on classics, (b)  reviews of and features about women’s literature, and (c) the entertaining literary column, “N.B.”, by J.C.

Last week the critic Dwight Garner at the New York Times explored the  TLS culture in an entertaining profile of  Stig Abell, “A Scrappy Makeover for a Tweedy Literary Fixture.” Abell, 38, is the editor, a Shakespeare enthusiast, and author of a new book, How Britain Really Works: Understanding the Ideas and Institutions of a Nation, which has just been published in the UK.

Garner writes, “When Stig Abell was named the editor of the venerable Times Literary Supplement, or TLS, two years ago, the baffled reaction among book people was nearly audible. Stig who?”

A former editor of  the Sun, which is apparently a tabloid, Abell does have literary qualifications:  he earned a double first in English from Cambridge and had written reviews for the TLS, the Spectator, and other newspapers.

Stig told Garner, “We want to keep our core audience.  But there are many others out there — they do all sorts of things professionally — who remember a time, perhaps in college, when they fed their minds and stretched themselves. They want that feeling again. We want those readers, too.”

Abell is hiring more women writers and writers of color. Sales are up.

I shall keep my fingers crossed and hope they continue to use correct grammar (they’ve had some wobbly pronouns) and publish brilliant articles.  Details, details!

And good luck!

The TLS, The Last Trojan Hero, & Adventures in Stationery

tls the_times_literary_supplement_16_january_2015_1I have just renewed my subscription to the TLS,.

It is a guilty pleasure: I end up buying many scholarly books on classics reviewed in this publication.

Right now I am finishing up Philip Hardie’s  The Last Trojan Hero:  A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid, an entertaining overview of Virgil’s influence on literary works ranging from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to  Michel Butor’s nouveau roman, La Modification (which my husband has promised to translate–we’ll see!).

But even the TLS has its lighter side.  I enjoyed Catharine Morris’s recent review of James Ward’s Adventures in Stationery: A Journey through Your Pencil Case.   Are you as enchanted by stationery as I am?  I  have added this book  to my TBR list.  (By the way, Ward has a blog called I Like Boring Things.)

image-adventures-in-stationery-a-journey-through-your-pencil-case-james-ward-mainMorris’s review is filled with charming quotes.  Ward writes, “It’s only a slight exaggeration to say the history of stationery is the history of human civilization.”

And I also like this.

The physical means something,” writes Ward. “People like it.” You can’t beat a handwritten letter, it’s true; and, as Ward points out, the materials we use have symbolic power: “Visiting a stationery store, you are surrounded by potential; it’s a way of becoming a new person, a better person.”

Few write letters, but I do correspond with a few old-fashioned friends.  Before the stationery store in town closed, I stocked up on stationery, fountain pens,  and Apica notebooks.  I also adore going to office supply stores on New Year’s Day.    My favorite episode of The Gilmore Girls is “Help Wanted,” when Lorelai and her father, Richard, stock up on post-its at an office supply store.  And of course The Office is set in a corporate paper supply business.

Did you know there is a blog called Letters of Note?

If you want to read some Roman classics, try Cicero’s Letters, Pliny’s letters, and Seneca’s letters.

I am fond of  Fanny Burney’s Evelina, the letters in Ausen’s novels (I especially like Lydia’s in Pride and Prejudice), Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross, Cathleen Schine’s The Love Letter, and there’s a lot of e-mail in Gary Shteyngart’s comic masterpiece, Super Sad True Love Story.

And then there is all that correspondence by favorite authors, Keats, Emily Dickenson, Thomas Hardy, Katherine Mansfield, etc.

What are your favorite books on/with letters?