Tuesday's Book: Sentimental journeys

'Loss' (edited by Elizabeth Barker); 'Childhood' (edited by Kate Figes); 'First Love' (edited by Paul Bailey); 'Friendship' (edited by Shena Mackay); 'Journeys' (edited by Charles Nicholl); 'Marriage' (edited by Elizabeth Jane Howard)

Here's a neat publishing idea - a line-up of six chunky little anthologies, focused on different topics and each with its own nicely idiosyncratic editor. It's a piece of book-making, of course, but all anthologies are book-making and the greatest of them are part of the literary heritage. These may not be quite that, but they are a classy product which - hardback, at pounds 4.99 a throw - should walk off those display counters alongside the cash-desk that are the bookshop equivalent of the supermarket sweetie stack. All credit also to the designer: delectable jackets each with an arresting flower photograph in vivid colour.

So what's inside? Well, the anticipated mix of prose and poetry, with contributing editors going for very different weightings. Elspeth Barker's 114 items, mainly poetry, on Loss is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sheena Mackay's Friendship with 23 pieces, almost entirely prose and including a 25-page extract from a Brigid Brophy novel. Two opposite reading experiences here: one for the dip and browse, and the other for immersion in extended extracts.

Mainly, though, the editors favour range, variety, changes of key and of mood - though it is instructive to note how often the same names crop up. Nabokov and Sir Walter Raleigh get into three collections; Dickens too (well, he would, wouldn't he?); Shakespeare gets the grand slam, with multiple entries in several. Otherwise it is a combination of the familiar with the provocative or esoteric: a satisfactory anthology rule of thumb. Given that these are the literary equivalent of miniature bottles of spirits, it is difficult to quarrel about ommissions. More a question of the overall flavour. Snack or feast?

Charles Nicholl's Journeys is a succulent little banquet, and he serves up the most memorable introduction, too, addressing himself thoughtfully to the origins of the word itself. His "obvious" choices are exactly the right ones - Conrad, Raleigh, Flaubert in Egypt, Wordsworth, Johnson. But then he pulls out of the hat Paulette Jiles's "Night Flight to Attiwapiscat" - a gem of a poem about an aircraft landing on one engine. Edith Wharton's delicious anecdote about Henry James's lack of any sense of direction is not exactly arcane but an inspired inclusion; the same goes for that lovely Patrick Kavanagh poem "On Raglan Road". All in all, this was the collection that most absorbed me - quirky and illuminating, like listening in to disembodied voices.

But there were discoveries and illuminations in almost all. One grumble: no attributions with individual pieces, so that you have to hunt in the acknowledgements at the back and if nothing surfaces there you have no way of pursuing the subject. But, as anthologies, these should perfectly fulfil the chief value of the form - to whet the appetite. Press into the hands of the young, those whose reading is unadventurous, and anyone else for that matter.

Dent, pounds 4.99 each

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