A Week in Books: Size does matter

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Size does matter, at least in the choice of a theme for non-fiction. Today's publishers and authors tend to prefer it either enormous - or tiny.

Size does matter, at least in the choice of a theme for non-fiction. Today's publishers and authors tend to prefer it either enormous - or tiny. At one extreme, historians and critics have taken to worshipping the god of small things. A cluster of current titles turn their literary microscopes on decisive crossroads and turning-points - whether in Bob Dylan's release of "Like a Rolling Stone" (Greil Marcus), the hand-gun assassination of William the Silent (Lisa Jardine), or that epoch-shifting year, 1603 (Leanda de Lisle).

At the other end of the scale, a variety of high-powered telescopes have offered panoramic overviews of whole galaxies of ideas and events. Of course, Stephen Hawking pioneered the mighty miniature, his Brief History of Time followed a decade later by Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything. Laconic thinkers such as Alain de Botton and A C Grayling have delivered the condensed milk of humankindness in modest packages. Within the next couple of weeks, John Carey will tell us What Good Are The Arts? in 250 pages while the philosopher Simon Blackburn gives his summary verdict on Truth.

It hardly calls for a metaphysician to work out that there might be some dialectical connection between the microscopic and telescopic genres. After all, Hawking-style pop cosmology saw the universe in a grain of sand - or rather, in the few nano-seconds of the Big Bang. Micro-histories, meanwhile, find the germ of cultures and eras in compact events. Conversely, wide-screen surveys of art and thought often reveal something very specific about the people, and the places, that attempt them. However big your story, you can only ever tell it from a single patch of ground. Ubiquity, like omniscience, is not a human trait.

Take Letters to Lily: on how the world works (Profile, £14.99), a sweeping tour d'horizon by the anthropologist Alan Macfarlane. Addressed to his seven-year-old granddaughter, but meant for her future teenage self, these 30 missives offer a pack of deep-thinking, wide-ranging essays on identity and society couched in simple, sturdy prose.

Like other short-haul sages, Macfarlane seeks to distil the fruits of a lifetime's reading and research. Selfhood, love, nationality, war, faith, science, family, freedom: he takes a comparative approach to the kind of "big words" that so alarmed Joyce's Stephen Dedalus. Macfarlane roots them in charmingly precise details, from the role of glass and tea in changing history, and the customs of the Nepalese villages where he does fieldwork, to proof that "magic is alive and well" in the cult of Disneyland and Harry Potter.

However, this affable analysis turns - perhaps inadvertently - into a book about Englishness (not Britishness). It constantly highlights the way modern culture reaches us through the "narrow funnel" of a peculiar language, history and set of traditions. Time and again, Macfarlane embarks like a super-erudite Bilbo Baggins on an epic intellectual hike across the earth, only to revert to the odd habits of his English Shire - a place, like Darwin's Galapagos islands, "where strange creatures have developed because of their partial isolation". He blends some gentle leg-pulling with a proper historical respect for the "English exception" and its role in forging modern life.

In philosophical terms, Macfarlane is leagues away from being a "relativist": that bugbear of Bavarian popes and Oxford dons. He grasps, and shares, the value of living as an autonomous individual sustained by liberty and law, "in peace and free from serious violence and fear". He also knows how rare this is. So Letters to Lily might best be enjoyed as a microscope-work dressed up as a telescope-work. This book about English culture arrives half-disguised as a book about the world. How typically English, some might say.