It’s getting quite hard to ignore the fact that publishers are increasingly hunting in packs, seemingly driven more by trends than by taste. Next year’s nonfiction lists are dominated to an almost ridiculous degree by books about identity and, perhaps more surprisingly, by essay collections, and the result, seen from afar, is both repetitive and a touch flimsy-seeming (great as it is that publishers are suddenly mad for essays, this is a form that requires a lot of craft and deep thinking even to be half successful). Meanwhile, pitiful neglect sets in elsewhere. If nature writing is (at last, some might say) in retreat, thunking great literary biographies are positively on the run, though we can, I’m happy to say, look forward to Katherine Rundell’s Super-infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber, April), a new and groovy-sounding account of the life of the great poet of sex and death.
Ah, yes: death. Grief is big business for publishing, an industry all of its own. In The Reactor: A Book About Grief and Repair (Faber, January), Nick Blackburn, a psychotherapist, worries away in modish fragmentary style at the sudden loss of his father. In This Mortal Coil: A History of Death (Bloomsbury, February), the historian Andrew Doig offers a portrait of the final exit across the centuries. Naturally, illness is all around, too. Those who have found Professor Devi Sridhar’s expertise and calm advice invaluable since the arrival of Covid-19 will be glad to know that she has written Preventable: the Politics of Pandemics and How to Stop the Next One (Viking, May). More cheerily, Gavin Francis, the Edinburgh GP who wrote so well on the pandemic last year, has now switched his attention – put the Lucozade on ice! – to life after illness in Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence (Wellcome Collection, January).
A couple of books about art. In Bacon in Moscow (Profile, January), James Birch relives his comical/somewhat terrifying attempts to mount a retrospective of the artist in the USSR in 1988 (think dodgy attaches and KGB honey traps); Grayson Perry calls it “rollocking”. I’m also looking forward to The Real and the Romantic: English Art Between Two World Wars (Thames and Hudson, April) by Francis Spalding, biographer of Vanessa Bell and John Minton. In pop and rock, White Rabbit, still a new imprint, is showing how it’s done: so many women’s voices. Next year, it will publish The Sound of Being Human by Jude Rogers (April), a memoir, shaped around 12 songs, which looks at why music plays such a profound role in our lives; and Wayward: Just Another Life to Live (April), the singer songwriter Vashti Bunyan’s account of how she came to record the album Just Another Diamond Day, ignored on its release in 1970, but adored on its rediscovery 30 years later. However, I’m reserving my greatest excitement for Sound Within Sound: Opening Our Ears to the Twentieth Century (Faber, July), in which Kate Molleson, the Radio 3 presenter, will tell the story of 10 radicals who dared to challenge the conventions of classical music. A book that seems likely to prick even the most jaded ears.
Under “fascinating and uncategorisable”, let’s file The Stasi Poetry Circle by Philip Oltermann (Faber, February) and The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight (also Faber, May). In the former, Oltermann tells the story of an experiment in weaponising poetry for politics that began in 1982 when East Germany’s secret police, convinced writers were embedding subversive messages in their work, decided to train border guards in the art of lyrical verse. In the latter, Knight goes back to 1966, when a British psychiatrist called John Barker began to investigate whether some people’s premonitions should be taken seriously in the hope of avoiding national disasters. Anyone who has ever wondered about the camp on the Isle of Man where Britain interned 30,000 German and Austrian refugees during the second world war, among them the artist Kurt Schwitters, will be keen to get hold of The Island of Extraordinary Captives (Sceptre, February) by Simon Parkin. Also heading our way, somewhat belatedly, is An Accidental Icon (Hodder, April), Norman Scott’s account of his relationship with the Liberal politician Jeremy Thorpe; thanks to the BBC hit A Very English Scandal, in which he was played by Ben Whishaw, Scott’s story may draw the attention even of those who weren’t there at the time.
Finally, some memoirs. Back in the Day (Sceptre, May) is Melvyn Bragg’s first; it is about his life from the age of six to 18. In Good Pop, Bad Pop (Cape, May), Jarvis Cocker will give us, we are told, not a life story so much as a “loft story” (his book is inspired by jumble found in his attic: a Gold Star polycotton shirt, a pack of Wrigley’s Extra, several pairs of broken glasses). Hamish Hamilton will also put back into print A Black Boy at Eton (February) by the Nigerian writer Dillibe Onyeama, with an introduction by Bernardine Evaristo (the book belongs to a series, Black Britain: Writing Back, whose titles she has chosen for the imprint). Written when Onyeama was just 21, it is an account of the racism he endured in the mid-60s as only the second black student in Eton’s history. “It wouldn’t let me go,” says Evaristo of a text that in 2020 resulted in an apology to its author from the school’s headteacher.
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