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Books blog: The art of the Catholic book reviewer

GK Chesterton is discussed in Edward Short's new book (AP)

I have been reading a stimulating book by the Newman scholar, Edward Short. Entitled, Adventures in the Book Pages, published by Gracewing, it is a collection of his essays and reviews. Short shows that the old-fashioned phrase, “a man of letters”, still has relevance: well-read, cultured, with an ear for writing good prose as well as discerning it in others, his book is a treat to browse. Among these pages you will find thoughtful and perceptive comments on the poets Hopkins and Eliot, the novelists, Waugh and Graham Greene, alongside a variety of other writers and personalities: GK Chesterton, Penelope Fitzgerald, Auden, Cardinal Newman among others; also reflections on historians such as Michael Burleigh, artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Edward Burne-Jones – indeed, on any subject that catches his incisive attention.

Short is also a Catholic, whose insights and assessments are informed by his faith. As a book reviewer myself, who often asks herself, “What is the point of reviewing?”, I asked Short what he thinks the task of a Catholic reviewer is. He tells me he is tempted to answer “one is not a Catholic reviewer but only a reviewer who happens to be Catholic” but then adds, “Yet there is a sense in which my faith does give me a special charge whenever I review books. I am on my mettle not only to write sensibly and fairly but also charitably. I also try to look at my subjects, as far as I can, sub specie aeternitatis. Lastly, I am always careful not to bore the reader.”

Reviewing, he thinks, is a “lowly enterprise, but it is precisely its lowliness that ensures its usefulness. Good reviewing – and I would argue, proper Catholic reviewing especially – demands good reading; also humility and self-effacement.”

Does being a Catholic reviewer leave one open to the charge of bias? Short reminds me that “all writing is biased. Certainly a Catholic bias is better than a nihilist or liberal bias, both of which tend to underestimate good books and overestimate those that are meretricious or highly regarded by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.” He believes that proper Catholic bias “gives one depth and balance, as well as sympathy and zest. And it puts one beyond the pale of fashion. The good Catholic reviewer should always be ready to be a sign of contradiction; a just and generous guide to the good work of others – but always a defender of the good, the beautiful and the true, even when it exposes him to obloquy.” He adds with conviction, “We must denounce the idiocies of the age.”

Can reviewing be a creative activity in its own right? Short reminds me that many of the personalities he covers in his book, such as Chesterton, Auden, Eliot, Greene and Waugh, wrote reviews expressly to fuel their own creative work. He thinks Graham Greene was an excellent critic, as was Waugh. He is grateful for the books he gets sent as they give him the opportunity “to learn about a subject or author that could very well serve as good creative grist to my own work.” As an example, he mentions Jane Ridley’s biographies of Edwin Lutyens and Edward VII which have been “an education not only in biography but history and narrative and that often elusive, subtle thing, style.”

Short also tells me that as his work on Newman is rooted in his 19th century English context, he tends to review books by or about figures of that period, such as Henry Mayhew, Ruskin, AWN Pugin, Gladstone, Thackeray and Hopkins. His favourite authors in his book “tend to be those from whom I learn the most, such as the historian Michael Burleigh.” He adds that “I have also learnt a fair amount from Fr Ian Ker, whose critical biographies of Newman and Chesterton are full of good things.”

Short explains that he doesn’t enjoy writing negative reviews; “At heart I am celebratory, not captious, so I would rather tout than pan a book.” However, he admits, “There are times when one finds oneself reviewing a bad, dishonest or preposterous book and then one has to speak plainly and denounce it.”

What about reviews of his own books? Short is candid: “What I dislike are unfavourable reviews by those who have obviously not read the book or read it so distractedly as to forfeit any conscionable say on the contents.”

I conclude by asking Short what authors he would recommend today. He suggests “Anything by the historian of the 17 and 18th centuries, JCD Clark or the classical historian, Peter Brown; also Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s retelling of the American War of Independence.” As to Catholic biographers, he recommends Mark Vickers’ biography of Cardinal Bourne and Paul Shrimpton’s book, The Making of Men, on the educational work of Cardinal Newman.