- Things I Learned on the 6.28: A Guide to Daily Reading, by Stig Abell. John Murray, $46.
Stig Abell was editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 2016 to 2020, before moving to the breakfast slot on the Times Radio. Things I Learned on the 6.28 is a fascinating and insightful commentary, interspersed with reflections on life, both personal and literary, on the 500 books he read in 2019, the year he calls 1 BC (Before Coronavirus).
While Abell acknowledges his "overall list is skewed towards European males, because they have dominated much of literary discourse over the centuries", he ends up with a 50-50 split of male-female authors.
His 12 chapters, January to December, have specific book themes, such as English classics, comic fiction, historical novels, poems and Shakespeare. Each chapter ends with a further reading list.
Abell's reading is varied and eclectic, following no discernible pattern, alternating between the famous and the relatively unknown. He admires the breadth of Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens, thinks P.G. Woodhouse is "the greatest comic writer", loves Moby Dick and feels a little guilty for liking George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman novels.
His favourite American novels include Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, John Updike's Rabbit is Rich and James Ellroy's American Tabloid, "the book that comes closest to literature as narcotic jolt". He notes that Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, by using the present tense, "sees the Tudor period being rendered as part of a 24-hour news cycle".
He doesn't eat breakfast before commuting, so the food described in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, described in the January crime chapter, takes the reader on a side journey of food in literature. While he admires the cleverness of Alan Moore's graphic novel Watchmen, he realises how "unvisual" his brain is. After reading to his children, he reflects on the "current trend towards instant gratification, rather than the steady accumulation of knowledge".
The last chapter December's "Lucky Dip" brings together his comments on the unlikely trio of Alexandra Dumas, J. K. Rowling and Angela Carter. Abell sees Carter as "a fitting figure to . . . end my year of reading", terming her "a high priestess of the Ovidian Imagination: the creator of constant metamorphoses".
He concludes, "the main thing I learned on the 6.28 is that I need reading to escape, to balance my mental state, to extend my horizon even when I feel circumstance is closing in around me".
Many in Britain, during the various lockdowns, would have seen reading in that context. Abell's book will certainly help in suggesting stimulating choices for reading and discussion.