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Books that review themselves

By Tom Chatfield  

In cuisine, the saying goes, the first bite is with the eye: appearances may be deceiving, but even the wariest diner begins their judgement with looks. Popular idiom cuts the other way with literature, advising good readers to ignore anything it comes wrapped in. At least in the Prospect office, however, the sport of pre-judging books is alive and well, faced as we are every day by a mesmerisingly long list of titles vying for review. And we don’t even need to look at the covers: just an author and title will do.

It’s in this spirit that we’ve begun seeking out the best embodiments of one particular principle: books whose titles (with a little applied ingenuity) provide their own reviews. An honourable precedent was set by the science writer, Matt Ridley, in our 2006 poll of Books of the year, who answered Steve Lowe and Alan MacArthur’s Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? with “Yes, it is just you.” And, more recently, Pierre Bayard’s How to talk about books you haven’t read yet moved us to observe that, although we don’t have the time actually to read his book, M. Bayard has undoubtedly produced a seminal tract for our times.

Among many other favourites, there’s Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice (which I knew was going to be rubbish before it even came into the office); Martin Amis’s collected essays, The War Against Cliché (a rip-roaring page-turning rollercoaster ride and a sure-fire hit from the master himself); Patrick Ness’s Topics About Which I Know Nothing (upon which we all felt far too ill-informed and under-qualified to comment); and the immortal This Book Will Change Your Life by Ben Carey and Henrik Delehag (which I was planning to review, except that immediately after finishing it I founded an internet company, made millions on the stock market, married a former Miss World and emigrated to California). And, for a more in-depth take on our philosophy, see the Prologue to Edward Leamer’s review of Thomas Friedman’s paean to outsourcing, The World is Flat.

Broadening the subject from literature to all the arts brings further pleasures, including what the Guinness Book of Records informs me is the shortest published theatrical review in history, of the late-Victorian show A Good Time (“no”)—a trick repeated by the film critic Leonard Maltin in his review of the 1948 musical Isn’t it Romantic? What we’d like most of all, however, is to hear from you with any suggestions you may have to augment our list over the holiday period. The best ones may even make it into the front half of the next issue…

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