What are you reading? – 8 February 2018

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

February 8, 2018
Pile of books
Source: iStock

Stephen Halliday, senior member, Pembroke College, Cambridge, is reading Mark Purcell’s The Country House Library (Yale/National Trust, 2017). “The word ‘comprehensive’ barely does justice to this volume. The author was curator of National Trust Libraries for 16 years and says that he spent ‘far too much time driving and sitting on trains’ travelling between his 160 charges, as well as visiting many others. The book offers a broadly chronological account of how these fine collections were assembled and of the buildings that house them, many themselves of architectural interest. Purcell makes the point that the design of the library often reflects the character of the collection. Thus at Tyntesfield, in Somerset, the Gothic revival architecture expresses the devotion of its owners, the Gibbs family, to the Tractarians, whose works by Newman, Keble and others are prominent on its shelves. And with 150 magnificent colour plates is it really only £45? Buy it quickly before the publishers notice their mistake.”

Maria Delgado, professor and director of research, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, is reading Vivien Leigh: Actress and Icon (edited by Kate Dorney and Maggie B. Gale; Manchester University Press, 2017). “The Vivien Leigh archive, purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013, provides the springboard for this fascinating collection of essays re-evaluating the iconic British actress and producer. In an important work of feminist cultural historiography, the essays displace earlier approaches to Leigh that see her work as secondary to her personal life and her husband Laurence Olivier’s supposedly superior talent. Insightful chapters explore the relationship between Leigh’s public and private personas, her preparatory work, performances and collaborations with French directors. Other essays on her relationships with portrait photographers and costume designers point to a form of self-fashioning also explored in the ‘living sets’ of her home interiors, while the role of fan clubs in promoting her legacy is duly recognised.”

Richard Howells, professor of cultural sociology, King’s College London, is reading Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage (Penguin Random House Children’s and David Fickling Books, 2017). “As a great admirer of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, it was inevitable that I was going to read this, his latest work, and ‘prequel’ to the previous saga of Lyra, Oxford, assorted witches and armoured bears. It’s a welcome return to his intoxicating melange of the familiar and the imaginary, woven around an epic struggle between good and evil. Did this new instalment need to be written? Well, the backstory has echoes of Homer’s Odyssey – although the narrative tension is relaxed by our already knowing that Lyra must survive. And since it’s the first volume of The Book of Dust series, I would have liked to have read more about the actual Dust. Still, there are two more volumes to come and, yes, of course: I will be reading them all.”

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