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?

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones