Recommending a book can be like trying to navigate the unspoken rules and faux pas of a Jane Austen ballroom. The book world comes with considerable baggage. Snobbery is rife, and so is reverse snobbery. Taste is on the line. So is class. So are more stigmas and stereotypes than anyone would want to be associated with. The stigma of the erotica reader. The stereotype of the science fiction reader. The distaste for the elitist advocate of whatever “real literature” is. All of this sits unspoken in the choice of the favorite book that you share with your new friend, and this is precisely why naming and explaining it can be like offering a stranger a hidden part of your soul.

– Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers, The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel (2016)

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Flirting with Cliché

I.

The teaser for Ian McEwan’s new novel is made up entirely of stock phrases: “To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavour, is just a speck in the universe of possible things.”

Must we – those of us who have read Hamlet and “Auguries of Innocence” – always leap from Shakespeare’s nutshell to Blake’s grains of sand? Are we men or are we automata?

II.

About online outrage he was never wrong,
The Old Master; how well he understood
Its human position. How, when the rational
Reverently, passionately seek Truth,
There always must be children
Who do not specially want to find it.

III.

Possible book title – Gonads of Greatness: From Shakespeare’s Nutshells to Blake’s Grains of Sand