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What I’m reading

October 31st, 2004

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

This is a great first novel, set in England during the Napoleonic wars, but with an alternate history in which magic was practiced until the relatively recent past, and is, as the book opens, a respectable topic of theoretical study for the upper-middle classes. This cosy arrangement is upset by the arrival of first one, and then a second, real practical magician. The result is a mixture of fairy story, historical novel and academic tome (the footnotes alone are well worth the admission price) with a total effect that is entirely new. The main action, involving the eponymous magicians, is great fun, and the subplots, which have the sinister edge of all good fairy stories, are even better.

After looking at the reviews on Amazon, I think one thing is clear. If you loved the Harry Potter books, you probably won’t like Jonathan Strange. If like me, you found Harry a pleasant read, but want something more than a readable mass-market kids book then this might be the book for you. Where Harry is Billy Bunter + magic, this is something more like Jane Austen+magic.

You can get it from your local bookshop in both black-on-white and white-on-black versions. For those who like ordering from Amazon, here’s a link or click on the picture above. This is part of Amazon’s associate program, under which I get a miniscule cut, marking my first tentative venture into blog commercialisation. I believe some people have made enough out of this to afford to buy a book for themselves.

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  1. October 31st, 2004 at 19:23 | #1

    Great to see an economist who is prepared to come out as a reader of novels! Anyone out there prepared to do the full monty and admit to reading poetry?
    Don’t find much time to read fiction or watch TV, but read a Hermann Hesse short story today, the very first in his collection “Stories of Five Decades”. Hesse was big with a subsection of the boomers during the 60s (or was it the 70′s), tho I think “The Glass Bead Game” was sending us up.
    Congratulations on making money out of Amazon, I am in the scheme but am not holding breath waiting for first payment.
    How about giving some ticks to my Amazon (US) reviews, I would like to get above 3876 ranking. Hint, go to John Gray’s “Straw Dogs” and then you can find the rest from there.

  2. Don
    October 31st, 2004 at 21:40 | #2

    I agree, it IS good to find an economist who reads. I remember one time I made some silly generalization about how appallingly ignorant economists were about culture and then a couple of days later a rather cultured piece by Prof Q appeared in the Fin (it was some kind of book review).

  3. James Farrell
    October 31st, 2004 at 22:04 | #3

    If what you say about economists is true, Don, it must be a consequence of economics having become more technical and more specialised. I wonder if we are worse than academics in the natural sciences where technique and narrowness also reign, or whether you just expect more of economists, who once upon a time were moral philosophers.

    Craig Freedman from Macquarie gave a paper at the Economics Conference some years ago arguing convincingly that economists can’t write because they can’t or don’t read.

  4. October 31st, 2004 at 22:41 | #4

    There never was a great economist who was not a voracious reader who knew how to parlay the ensuing eclecticism into enduring heterodoxy. History affords them honour – even, eventually (nothwithstanding the petty smears of certain erstwhile ministers for communication) in their own country. Disciplinary boundaries retard the social sciences woefully, and were it not for the fact they suit those among the credentialled who fear a good read (not to mention a little of that competition they’re always eulogising), I like to think we’d now be paying more than lip service to ‘transdisciplinarity’ – aye, and watching The Humanities blossom rather than wither …

    Anyway, I’m reading Jerry Muller’s *The Mind and the Market” at the moment, and was just thinking what a therapeutic item it’d be on any eco101 reading list (even if I do think Muller’s criticism of Marx’s ‘organic composition of capital’ is somewhat too strong, not least because – unlike, say, Schumpeter – he’s ignored the capital and human cost of that ‘constant revolutionising of production’ bit).

  5. stephen
    November 1st, 2004 at 09:02 | #5

    haven’t read this one, but will now. from this review it seems stylistically somewhat similar to Mary Gentle’s Ash series (alternate history mixed with real, with claims to scholarship being part of the attraction).

  6. November 2nd, 2004 at 03:39 | #6

    Not really very similar to ASH, aside from being a single big fat thick book (ASH was cut up into bits for the American market). The history hews quite close to actual 19th century history – the presence of wizards has the same kind of effect on London as superheroes do on the modern world in mainstream comic books – they do big and flashy stuff, but don’t really change the recorded facts.

    And stylisitcally, it’s a much more formal book, much less violent, with only a couple forays into matters military. It also doesn’t have the 20th century frame-story stuff. It does have footnotes, but they’re used quite differently – in ASH, they have a heavy ironic subtext, as the modern commentator desperately tries to drag the narrative back into historical reality, whereas in JONATHAN STRANGE &C. they serve as embellishments, fleshing out backstory elements.

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