Publishers lately seem to have got the idea that otherwise uncommercial subjects might be rendered sexy if presented with a personal, often confessional, counterpoint. The ostensible subject of Laura Beatty’s book is the pioneering Greek botanist and philosopher Theophrastus. He was a friend of Aristotle’s, and was once thought his intellectual equal, but is now little known except to a few classicists and historians of science. But since no one wants to publish a straight book on Theophrastus, we get instead a book that is at least as much about Laura Beatty, her library researches, her travels in Greece and her kitchen garden.
Her publishers describe the book as ‘genre-defying’. But the genre lines can be blurred only so often before we have simply created a new genre, with all the clichés that come with it: how Middlemarch cured my midlife crisis, retracing Nietzsche’s morning walks, what Mrs Gaskell taught me about love… you know the sort of thing. Works in this genre have rarely managed to answer the basic sceptical question they raise: if I’m not already interested enough in Theophrastus to pick up a book about him, why would I be any likelier to pick up a book on him because it also features the sentimental journeys of a certain Laura Beatty?
Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage remains a model of how to do it, if you must. The memoir there really earned its keep, with D.H. Lawrence’s personality brought into sharp relief when evoked in the voice of its crotchety, distractible narrator. Dyer solved the problem of how to draw in the Lawrence sceptics by being provocative, perceptive and extremely funny. Would that his imitators had learnt that lesson.
To be clear, Beatty’s book is not by any means the worst entry in this genre.