Sunday, October 9, 2011

Week 41: Albion


Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, by Peter Ackroyd

The best word I can think of to describe this book is discursive. Ackroyd is known for his long, rambling books about history and literature, and this one is a lot of fun to read, though it ranges all over the place almost at random. It's a bit like listening to a learned professor-type ramble on at a party with a glass of wine in his hand. You can read it in chunks without losing anything much because it's pretty disconnected.

Ackroyd starts right back at the beginning of English literature, with the Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf and the Venerable Bede, and tries to identify typically English themes and preferences, taking due note of imported ideas. He dwells particularly on a love of surface decoration, the fashion for melancholy--still with us in the form of Goth teens!--a preference for variety (Shakespeare's mixing of comic scenes with tragedy is a case in point), and, sometimes, a near-obsession with scatalogical humor. One chapter will focus on the popularity of translations from other languages; the next will talk about miniature paintings; then it's on to the deep historical roots of cross-dressing in theater. Sometimes his analysis seems like a stretch, but on the whole it's interesting.

It's a really fun book to read, awfully long, and, except for an attempt to keep things in somewhat chronological order, almost entirely random. He doesn't manage to get past the mid- 19th century, so don't expect too much on modern literature. Those who already love English literature will enjoy it and probably glean some new knowledge; others will almost certainly lose patience.

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