Mon 18 November 2019
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The best boring books
There are times when dullness is exactly what you want from a book writes Robert McCrum

It's the 70th anniversary of the Blitz here in London. One of the very worst raids on the capital took place on 29 December 1940, destroying several Wren churches and Paternoster Row, the home of British publishing. Partly inspired by this, I've been looking into the literature of this traumatic period.

One place to start is Paul Fussell's Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War (Oxford, 1989). It's not as good as the Fussell classic The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, 1975), but that's partly thanks to the inequalities of the material. The Great War is simply just richer, from a literary point of view. Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, Graves: the rollcall from France trumps anything the 1940s can produce, with the possible exception of Evelyn Waugh. The arrival of 2011 permits me to say that his Sword of Honour trilogy grows in stature with every passing decade.

Anyway, moving on, I found one chapter in Wartime to be especially suggestive. "Reading in wartime" considers the fiction that cultivated British and American readers tended to turn to as the bombs began falling. The short answer seems to have been Trollope, Dickens, Austen and Henry James. "People are reading more", declared TS Eliot in a BBC radio broadcast in December 1941, "and reading good stuff". No doubt that's true, but I bet they were reading rubbish, too.

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The Guardian

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