Donald Davie

  • The Oxford Book of Essays edited by John Gross
    Oxford, 680 pp, £17.95, February 1991, ISBN 0 19 214185 6

Perhaps after all some things never change. More than fifty years ago I chose as a prize from Barnsley Grammar School a book called The 100 Best English Essays, edited by the Earl of Birkenhead. (And who was he, I now wonder.) This book was very important in my education, not just for style but for substance too; and I reproach myself for having, not many years ago, let it go out of my hands. When I let it go, I thought – insofar as I gave it thought at all – that any interest it might have for strangers would be antiquarian: it was a relic from a time, not so long ago, when for the aspiring young the printed word, and that special kind of it called literature, was a medium not seriously challenged by any other. That time was surely gone, I thought, and printed literature now had a hard time claiming even parity with competing media like film, rock and reggae music, multi-media happenings, what have you. But bless me, it seems I was wrong. For if John Gross isn’t duplicating for a later generation what the Earl of Birkenhead did for mine, I don’t know what he and the marketing managers at Oxford University Press think they are doing. What readers can they think they are catering for, if not such callow and eagerly attentive 18-year-olds as I was fifty years ago?

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