BOOKS: All of a piece throughout

Christmas reading is often a matter of dipping into some thing light, and there is a huge range of anthologies available. Ben Rogers gives his verdict on some of the most enjoyable

THE general rule to anthologies is that the quirkier, lighter and easier they are the better. A book which meets the requirement admirably is Colin McDowell's handsome The Literary Companion to Fashion (Sinclair- Stevenson pounds 20). Whether authors are deriding them, appraising them lovingly or describing them being taken off, clothes, as McDowell shows, seem to bring out the best in writers. Many of the items McDowell has hunted out are funny (see the sections "The Peacock Male", "The Power of Clothes", "Shopping" and "Getting it Wrong") and some are sexy ("The Thrills of Undressing"). The selection is consistently imaginative and McDowell understands the importance of spicing longer extracts, from favourites like Thackeray and Mrs Gaskell, with shorter witticisms such as George Bernard Shaw's "If you rebel against high-heeled shoes, take care to do so in a very smart hat".

Rules, though, are there to be broken, and two of the year's best anthologies - John Carey's The Faber Book of Science (pounds 17.50) and John Simpson's The Oxford Book of Exile (pounds 17.99) - are on high-minded, even sombre subjects. John Carey is puzzled by why writers, artists and the general public remain so unimpressed by science. As his anthology shows, it cannot be for lack of good science writing; a great deal of it, from the 16th century to the present, can equal in imaginativeness and excitement anything offered by novelists or poets. Carey's introduction is clear and encouraging and the whole book has a very friendly feel. His anthology also serves as a reminder of the sheer variety of science writing, from autobiographical accounts of the first thrill of discovery (Roentgen's on his discovery of X-rays), through close observation in the field (Orwell on toads), to exposition of the basic laws of nature (Richard Dawkins on Darwinism).

The Oxford Book of Exile does have plenty of lighter moments: Casanova on his flight from Venice, Christopher Hibbert on Edward VII in Paris, Alan Bennett on Burgess in Moscow. But for the most part it makes for sad, moving reading and the whole thing has, like the editor himself, a dignified, humane air. As you might expect from Simpson, there are eyewitness reports from recent trouble-spots, like Palestine, Iran, El Salvador, and Russia (but strangely not from Yugoslavia). However, he covers the past as well as the present - Homer on Odysseus's return to Penelope, Robert Hughes on the convict ships, Herzen on Russian emigre revolutionaries in Switzerland - and includes writings about individuals as well as groups: Mohammed fleeing from Mecca, Oscar Wilde stranded in Paris, Dreyfus enduring the ceremony of "degradation" before being exiled to his island prison.

The foppish Sir Novelty Fashion from Vanbrugh's play The Relapse might have appeared in McDowell's anthology on dress, but in fact he stars in the oxymoronically titled The Oxford Book of London, edited by Paul Bailey (pounds 17.99). Bailey includes plenty of descriptions of the city - from Thomas a Becket through Wordsworth and Dickens to Rassmussen - but he also provides extracts intended to give a feel for the life that went on within it. Thus we get Thackeray on "How to live well on nothing a year" and Frances Partridge on the Blitz, or Sir Novelty describing how he spends his day: "If it be nasty weather, I take a turn in the chocolate-house; where as you walk, madam, you have the prettiest prospect in the world; you have looking glasses all round you." I only wish that Bailey had arranged the collection along thematic instead of chronological lines - I found the result a bit indigestible.

The Oxford Book of Nature Writing edited by Richard Mabey (pounds 16.99) and Brian Macarthur's The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches (pounds 20) suffer from the same problem: all the extracts are of a single genre, either speeches or what Mabey calls "factual prose", and the effect is a little flattening. That said, both authors have thought hard about their selections. Macarthur wisely decided to concentrate on certain political conflicts - gathering together the oratory of the American Civil War or the campaign for female suffrage, for instance - even at the risk of leaving some speakers (there is nothing from 19th-century revolutionaries or nationalists) and genres (courtroom speeches, for instance) unrepresented. This means his book works well not just as an anthology but as a history of those episodes it covers.

Mabey's anthology inevitably moves over some of the same ground as Carey's - Darwin, Haldane, Orwell and Primo Levi make appearances in both - but the spirit of the two is rather different. Carey's writers are all in the business of popularisation, and many of them are more interested in the laws of physics or mechanics than they are in nature. Mabey's book, on the other hand, is jammed with intricate, sometimes scientific, sometimes literary observations of plants, landscapes and animals: Aristotle on the jellyfish, Gilbert White on the house-martin, Thoreau on the lily bud, Margaret Mee on the moonflower. Mabey shows that he knows his stuff (as you would expect from the biographer of Gilbert White) but his selections are packed thick on the page, and get little by way of introduction.

I had fun with Stuart Gordon's The Book of Hoaxes (Headline pounds 19.99) with its tales of conmen, fake Messiahs, UFOs and practical jokes both literary and artistic. Gordon, however, rather spoils the enjoyment by sermonising on the importance of having a sense of humour. The Book of Modern Scandal (Weidenfeld pounds 20) seems an equally frivolous affair, although newspaper cuttings about the goings-on of Imelda Marcos or Bienvenida Buck jostle with exposes of Distiller's conduct toward victims of thalidomide and the CIA's illegal domestic spying. And although its editor Bruce Palling mutters about broadening our "understanding of the human condition", he is honest enough to admit that "my present selection is shaped more by entertainment than educational motives". A seasonal message, perhaps?

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