Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson’s books of the year

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The most nourishing book I have read this year is Armand d’Angour’s The Greeks and the New: Novelty in Ancient Greek Imagination and Experience. The author teaches classics at Jesus College, Oxford. He plays the piano beautifully, and also the cello, can talk fluently on art and literature and so is the ideal person to write this book, which ranges across the whole flow of culture.

We all know that the ancient Greeks were the first to do many things, but d’Angour examines the underlying question: what did they think about novelty and why, given their conservatism in so many areas of conduct, did they regard it as desirable? His knowledge of Greek literature is exhaustive and he has a gift for the apt quotation, so every page glitters with gold nuggets. You don’t need to know Greek to get joy out of this rich book: just intellectual curiosity and the power to concentrate on difficult material.

One of the best art books to come out in 2011 is John E. Crowley’s Imperial Landscapes: Britain’s Global Visual Culture. Covering the years 1745-1820, it examines the landscapes which emerged from the expansion of England overseas during this three-quarters of a century, with special chapters on Canada, the Pacific, India, Australia and the West Indies, as well as the lost colonies of America.

As always with Yale, the book is handsomely produced, with hundreds of illustrations, many from rare prints and books. I met some fine artists new to me, such as Joseph Lycett (Australia), Francis Guy (United States) and the brilliant William Hodges (India), as well as old favourites like the Daniells, Zoffany and James Peachey. A sumptuous volume.