BOOKS OF THE YEAR: ANTHOLOGIES: Ragbags, fragments, lists and porcupines

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"A fragment," said Schlegel, "like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself, like a porcupine." He was right. The best anthologies are composed of such self-sufficient fragments. Graham Higgin goes one step further. His seductive philosophical anthology provides Porcupines (Allen Lane pounds 9.99) aplenty. Resounding sentences from great thinkers appear chronologically, while the context of their remarks is shown opposite. Thus Meister Eckhart is represented by this: "Whoever desires to be given everything must first give everything away." Look across the page to learn that it comes from a Latin sermon about St Paul; a footnote directs you to a modern edition of Eckhart, for further reading. It makes a pleasing, useful book.

Even more practical is another collection that comes complete with user's guide, Daisy Goodwin's ambitious 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life (HarperCollins, pounds 9.99). You consult the Emotional Index and choose, say, Illness, Insomnia or Retail Therapy, then off you go for help, to Duxter, Duffy or Donne. It belongs on the first-aid shelf, next to the medical dictionary.

An anthology may be, etymologically speaking, a bouquet of flowers, but it is often a mixed bunch. The blooms proffered by Laura Stoddart, however, resemble each other in celebrating an easy life in an orderly home and Up the Garden Path (Orion pounds 9.99). This is a pretty book, illustrated with Stoddart's discreetly comic drawings of tiny, elongated people, faceless but immaculately dressed. Her writers are appropriately laconic: "It was an armchair that was my undoing," says a French princess, explaining why she didn't become a nun; "Some are weather-wise," notes Benjamin Franklin, "some otherwise."

The prize both for beauty and good value goes to A Medieval Miscellany (Weidenfeld pounds 20). Its heavy paper is look-alike parchment, its illustrations breathe of illuminated manuscripts, but it is more than just a gorgeous object. Texts from the 6th to the 15th centuries illustrate the humanity of our ancestors. Here Bede warns against excessive drinking and a Norse poet ponders the ugliness of his feet. Here is a poem by an Irish boy studying abroad, addressed to his cat and here a very gloomy chap sulks, in 12th century Hebrew, "If I were a dealer in shrouds, no one would die as long as I lived."

You get something of a sense of despair from a small, exquisite book of War Poems (Everyman pounds 9.99), which adopts an unusual approach. Its editor, John Hollander, who translates several of the entries himself, takes an international, chronological view, not of the works but of the wars. So he starts with Milton describing the fall of Satan and ends with Wallace Stevens prophesying a war in which "the mind and sky" are opposed. It makes you grateful for peace but aware of its fragility. John Keegan tackles the same subject, at greater length and in prose, for The Penguin Book of War (Viking pounds 25). Keegan is a fine historian and his is a comprehensive, exhaustive survey of largely first-hand accounts.

Wars feature pretty strongly in News That Stays News (Faber pounds 9.99). For this one, Simon Rae has found yet another angle, choosing a poem for each year of the century. It is a thought-provoking, strongly idiosyncratic history: 1904, for instance, is marked by a grumble from Punch about taxes, 1916 by a furious outburst of scatological rage by A P Herbert and 1984 by Gavin Ewart's ironic hymn to a "fake-lady bossyboots from Grantham". Most of the great names are here, and their best poems.

Some anthologies degenerate into lists, others start out that way. Anthony Dillon Malone's mad little book is no more than a collection of literary lists. Stranger than Fiction (Prion pounds 9.99) he calls it. Malone's your man if you need to know that Jean-Paul Sartre was 4' 6'' tall or that Swift only laughed twice in his life - but how can he be sure?

Finally to a rag-bag of a book, as full of scraps of embroidered brocade as of dirty dishcloths - which is appropriate for the emotional, illogical world of Sisters (Allen Lane pounds 20). Penelope Farmer invokes every kind of sisterhood, including nuns, nurses, prostitutes, protesters and young female apes. Journalism jostles with the classics, as John Walsh is vamped to within an inch of his manhood by the Beverly Sisters and, poignantly, the little Brontes imagine spending old age together. One of the shortest entries comes from Beth Yapp. As one blessed with four sisters and four daughters, I can vouch for its resonant ring of truth: "You're my sister. Liking doesn't come into it."