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A Little Bit of This and A Little Bit of That

posted on 18 Jul 2017

A Little Bit of This and A Little Bit of That

What do you think of the prose anthology? A little bit of on-line research soon uncovers the fact that opinion amongst readers and academics is split – some loving the easy overview of a topic anthologies provide and others seeing them as superficial and lazy. I’ve recently been grazing through two collections – The Chatto Book of Dissent and The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Protest – each of which have some 400 pages with tens of items selected from a range of different authors, many of whom I’d never get around to reading in full. Think of these books as the literary equivalent of the Greatest Hits album or maybe the Now That’s What I Call….series of albums.

Way back in 1922, Philip Churchman was already thinking about the value and use of anthologies. In his essay, The Use of Anthologies in the Study of Literature his opening paragraph states the issues succinctly:

The arguments against anthologies are familiar and obvious. Instead of an intense friendship with the choicest flowers in the garden of literature, it is felt they give us the birds-eye view from the far-off airship that takes in everything and penetrates nothing. Or perhaps the reader may be compared to the traveller in an express train, rushing through the provinces but never knowing a personality. Books of selections, it is argued, are scrappy and superficial.

Churchman concludes that anthologies should not be dismissed too casually and they have a role in supplementing ‘proper’ reading by giving someone new to a field of study an easy framework to build future reading around.

There is undoubtedly something a bit sniffy or snooty in the way people often respond to anthologies – reading selected highlights isn’t ‘real’ reading they seem to be saying. As Churchman himself puts it:

If education may be defined (in part) as a process of learning something about everything and everything about something , the anthology may lay no claim to contributing to the second half of that process.

But, of course that’s to totally underplay the first half of that proposition – knowing a little bit about everything strikes me as pretty valuable and, perhaps more to the point, enjoyable.

It seems to me that one of the joys of the anthology is putting yourself in the hands of those who have compiled the selection. What they choose to include is not definitive and nor is it meant to be. The excerpts that get chosen tell us about an editorial point of view; they are, if you like, a guided tour of a topic and just like any tour it should be fundamentally enjoyable, delightful and surprising but it is, ultimately, partisan in that it sees the literary representation of a subject from the curators point of view. So, anthologies are not, as they are often presented, some placid or neutral collection of writings that give a fair and balanced overview – you have to select your anthology as much by the credentials of the compiler as by the topic it purports to cover.

But that’s not to say all anthologies are worthwhile. There are certainly bad anthologies where the selections are predictable and turgid and where the structure of the book is unimaginative and these are to be avoided just as any poorly written book is to be avoided. But there are also anthologies that are excellent and provide us with provocative collections that include hard-to-find and obscure contributions that force us to re-evaluate our initial perceptions.

To be honest I wouldn’t want too much of my reading to be anthologised but a handful of these collections can be an indispensible and valuable way into topics I have little knowledge of – breadth rather than depth is exactly what I need sometimes.

So, let’s hear it for the anthology that has been carefully constructed and lovingly curated by someone who understands their topic and loves introducing us to their most favourite slices of the best cuts. But choose with care!

Terry Potter

July 2017