A Week In Books
At the Edinburgh Festival
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 16 August 1997
However much the Edinburgh organisers try to gloss feng shui as a sort of turbocharged interior design, it remains a form of ancient earth magic, or geomancy. As a long-lived superstition, it ranks with (say) Tarot-reading and astrology, neither of which yet has a niche in Charlotte Square. It was Hume's own landmark essay "On Miracles" - itself one of Edinburgh's greatest gifts to European thought - that found the last word on the New Age, back in 1748. Hume shakes a wry head at "the usual propensity of mankind towards the marvellous" before accepting that this urge "can never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature".
Acceptance is one thing; encouragement quite another. Yet Dr Jan Fairley, the Book Festival's new director, has arguably struck a useful blow for cultural glasnost by spotlighting "personal issues of belief and lifestyle" in her first programme. What the trade calls "mind, body and spirit" publishing still flourishes mightily. To the huge public that treats Hume's Enlightenment - especially in its scientific guise - as just another outworn creed, these works manage to refresh the parts other ideas cannot reach.
They fill acres of bookshop space (you can always find more books on astrology than on astronomy, Richard Dawkins often complains). They crowd the best-seller lists, propelled high into the charts by money-spinning serial deals with shameless middle-market newspapers. And they keep almost every intellectual charlatan known to European history solidly in print. No one save students and scholars now reads Hume's great forerunner, Michel de Montaigne - the only modern writer Shakespeare ever copied almost word for word (in The Tempest). Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands still pore over the gibberish rhymes of Montaigne's French contemporary, Nostradamus.
This vast bookish underworld - which keeps scores of publishers in funds, and armies of readers content - has almost no diplomatic relations with mainstream literary life. And that should bother mainstream literary folk more than it evidently does.
The Edinburgh "lifestyle" strand makes a gesture towards contact by welcoming the softer, therapeutic end of New Age thought (literally) into its camp. It nonetheless stays safely in a little ghetto. Punters who turn up for Roy Hattersley or Pat Barker, Kate Atkinson or Mario Vargas Llosa, need not know about the reflexology or "herbs for pets" advice going on across the square. Only Lynne Franks (unblushingly labelled by the brochure as "the inspiration for Edina" in AbFab) can be relied upon to straddle the gap.
Next year, perhaps, the Festival should bite the bullet and stage a full- scale debate between the deep-dyed mystics and the hard-core rationalists. If David Hume really had a ghost, it would surely float along to that.
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
- 2 Replica Back to the Future Hoverboard released
- 3 Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
- 4 Dylan Moran on quitting smoking, being about as sexy as the Pope and why comedy panel programmes are 'c*ck shows'
- 5 Modern society encapsulated in five seconds
Poldark, review: Demelza’s insouciance is almost as impressive as Ross’ pecs
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
James May hints he will not continue on Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson
Menstruation-themed photo series artist 'censored by Instagram' says images are to demystify taboos around periods
Jeremy Clarkson Top Gear return: Suspended host set for live event in Norway next week
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans