Ian Sansom

Four dangerous visionary writers

‘The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks… And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.’ The quote is usually attributed to Stalin, though the phrase ‘engineers of human souls’ most likely came from someone else. Who’s to argue? Purges, executions, deportations – what’s

Have we all become more paranoid since the pandemic?

As anyone who has ever been lucky enough to spend time in a psychiatric hospital knows, you don’t have to be completely mad to be there. A lot of us end up in the care of mental health professionals and jacked up on all sorts of crazy-person meds because something’s just not right: you know

Why are the Japanese so obsessed with the cute?

Joshua Paul Dale is a professor of American literature and culture at Chuo University in Tokyo and a pioneer in what is apparently a burgeoning academic field called ‘Cute Studies’ – or what Damon Runyon might have called ‘Pretty Cute’ Studies, as in ‘“Are You Kidding Me? You Study This?” Studies.’ In fairness, Dale makes

What makes other people’s groceries so engrossing?

When you think of a collector you might imagine, say, Sir John Soane, Henry Wellcome, Charles Saatchi or Peggy Guggenheim, the fabulously wealthy, amassing their statuary, paintings and penis gourds in order to furnish their Xanadu palaces or display their good taste and fortune for the benefit of the nation. But there are other kinds

Don Paterson is frank, fearless and furious about everything

Memoirs by poets – the Top Ten? It’s an admittedly niche category, and since no one would ask this in normal conversation, or even in a pub quiz, here is the chart. It is based not on official sales or downloads but rather on my own tastes, prejudices and relatively recent reading: Last Night’s Fun,

The sad, extraordinary life of Basil Bunting

Funny old life, eh? Small world, etc. In one of those curious, Alan Bennett-y, believe-it-or-not-but-I-once-delivered-meat-to-the mother-in-law-of-T.S.-Eliot-type coincidences, it turns out that Mark Knopfler once worked as a copy boy on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle when Basil Bunting was working there as a sub-editor. Knopfler being Knopfler, he eventually wrote a sad sweet song about it,

Plain tales of crookedness and corruption: Rogues reviewed

Do not be deterred, but do be warned. Rogues isn’t a book book: it’s a kind of high-end sizzle reel, a ‘best of’ articles by Patrick Radden Keefe, a staff writer for the New Yorker. The magazine has always had its stars, among them James Thurber, E.B. White, Joseph Mitchell, Janet Malcolm, Anthony Lane and

Where is Ruja Ignatova, the self-styled cryptoqueen, hiding?

This is a depressing book. It’s a reminder of everything that is sick, broken and generally maledicted about the human condition. It’s also a book based on a podcast, which brings difficulties of its own. To cut a very long story short, The Missing Cryptoqueen tells the true story of a Bulgarian crook named Ruja

The cut-throat business of the secondhand book trade

For almost as long as there have been books, there have been books about books — writers just love to go meta. As well as all that midrash, those Biblical commentaries, the SparkNotes, the interpretations, retellings and the endless online fan fic, there are also of course plenty of guides, manuals and handbooks designed to

His own worst critic? Clive James the poet

Clive James (1939-2019), in the much-quoted words of a New Yorker profile, was a brilliant bunch of guys. One of those guys was a poet. Alongside the celebrated columns in the Observer, and Saturday Night Clive, and the Postcard From… documentaries, and Clive James on Television, and so on and so forth, there was a

From frontispiece to endpapers: the last word on the book

Book Parts — hardback, 352 pages, with colour plate section and in-text black and white illustrations, 234x156mm, ISBN 9780198812463, published 2019 by Oxford University Press, ‘a department of the University of Oxford’ which ‘furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship and education by publishing worldwide’, according to the copyright page — has at

The bad cat of journalism

God, I wish I was Janet Malcolm. Fifty or more years as a staff writer on the New Yorker, reviews in the New York Review of Books, the occasional incendiary non-fiction bestseller (In the Freud Archives, The Journalist and the Murderer, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes), even the famous lawsuit. (She was

Big, bold, beautiful ideas

I am undoubtedly, alas, an example of what the Fowler brothers, H.W. and F.G., of The King’s English fame, would have called ‘a half-educated Englishman of literary proclivities’. Fellow half-educateds of similar proclivities will doubtless recall that scene in the third chapter of Our Mutual Friend, when Gaffer Hexam shows Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn

A hero to worship

If you don’t know who Lionel Messi is you won’t enjoy this book much. If you do, you probably will. But if you know who Messi is and you’ve got at least a 2:1 in English, comp. lit. or similar, you are going to absolutely love it. This is definitely one for the football aficionado