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The Independent Culture
! In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike, Penguin pounds 6.99. Beginning before the Great War, this novel follows four generations of an American family. First is the gentle Presbyterian minister who loses his belief and ends up peddling encyclopaedias. His son is a small-town postman between the wars but his actress grand-daughter becomes a screen goddess, combining the sexiness of a Monroe with the toughness of a Debbie Reynolds. The last vignette tells of her misfit son who finds self-respect in a religious cult, until he learns the meaning of its Day of Reckoning and its arsenal of AK47s. The way the circle of unbelief is completed - from the bleak rationality of the pastor's lost faith to the firestorm that engulfs his great-grandson - is just one of the pleasures of a magnificent novel.

! Men of Blood: Murder in Modern England by Elliott Leyton, Penguin pounds 7.99. "By all the conventional criminological indices - of urbanisation, economic disparity, industrial collapse, ethnic and racial tension - England should have a very high murder rate," says Professor Leyton at the start of this study. In fact it is "among the very lowest in the industrial world". Why? Leyton, a Canadian criminologist, puts it down to social values embedded in the country's culture, which he repeatedly praises as a great civilisation. Using statistics, case histories and the statements of convicted murderers, he sets out to prove that the very characteristics by which England is mocked from abroad - reserve and emotional inhibition - are responsible for its people's "parsimonious" use of murder as a way of resolving conflicts. He has a frankly Hobbesian view of society, in which humanity's awesome propensity for violence is tamed by effective socialisation, and believes that in England this has been particularly effective. This interesting picture is, of course, one which tabloid readers will scarcely recognise.

! A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, Flamingo pounds 9.99. "The first time you was caught trying to read you was whipped with a cow-hide, the next with a cat-o-nine-tails and the third they cut the first joint off your forefinger." An American slave who taught others to read could be hanged. Literacy, whether seen as weapon, badge of rank or passport to knowledge, was something to fear. In the modern era it has become a moral activity, with dangers to balance its virtues in the eyes of censors like Mary Whitehouse, but an absolute good in the liberal tradition. This is not so much a history as a commonplace book of stories and reflections. Perhaps that's inevitable. A true History of Reading might be an impossible undertaking, liable to turn at the flip of a page into A History of Everything. And that, of course, would be unreadable.

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