A review of a book that reviews a paper that reviews books

On London Review of Books: An Incomplete History

It's a book that keeps you at arms length. Maybe that’s the point - to reveal without losing too much mystique, to tell stories whilst remaining enigmatic. You can almost hear the editors wondering if the magic will be lost if the readers know too much.

As an autobiography, history or memoir, it doesn't quite let you in. London Review of Books: An Incomplete History gives some tantalising glimpses whilst leaving the reader standing on the doorstep. The paper that it describes is a bit like that too. A bit standoffish, perhaps. A bit distant. A bit of a mystery.

This hefty volume combines bits of editorial reflection, article excerpts and documents from the archive to tell the forty-year story of the fortnightly review. The book's design is a little too coffee-tabley, suggesting it is a text to be flicked through and displayed rather than closely read. Yet there is more substance to it than its design might suggest. In its pages there is a serious if circumscribed account of the LRB’s content and form.

The way that the LRB runs is likely to be of interest to any reader (or any writer for that matter). The correspondance between editors and contributors, red pen strewn copy, emails, written notes, post-its and the like, provide some intriguing details. A letter from Derrida complaining about his representation. Notes from Butler, Beard, Said and Bennet. A returned cheque from Berlin. A letter to Bourdieu declining an offer he had earlier made to collaborate with the LRB. These are some of the reproduced documents in here - little fragments of literary history. There are lots of others.

These archival remnants are accompanied by short blocks of commentary from the editorial team as well as some cuts from the articles being referenced. Mostly organised to fit into chronological sections, there are some rich details in these short accounts, and the snippets are suggestive of the tone and politics of the literary scene of which the LRB has long been an active participant.

The commentary is generally very brief. These reflections are interesting and engaging, whilst remaing quite terse. The editors describe a phone call here, a commission there, a debate that played-out in their letters pages, a disagreement between editors and contributors or, occasionally, decisions about the paper's design or direction. It was more of this type of commentary that would have added more colour and depth to the story.

Despite the details and documents the book is, as its subtitle suggests, incomplete. Reading it feels a little like skimming the surface. Inevitably, perhaps, there is much left unsaid. It is a fascinating surface to skim along nonetheless. The scattered revelations are compelling and begin to build a picture.

The stylish covers are one of the famous features of the LRB - their colour and aesthetic contrasts with the austere columns of text inside. This book provides some description of how these covers were created and chosen. Amongst the documents reproduced are some early sketches of potential cover art. We discover that the artist Peter Cambell would split a page into nine squares and fill each with an idea, some of which would later be fleshed out into full artworks. This book too is a pencil sketch of the LRB, interesting and compelling in its own right but ultimately only suggestive of the finished article.

davidbeer.net

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