IIt’s getting pretty hard to ignore the fact that publishers are increasingly looking for packs, apparently more driven by trends than taste. Next year’s non-fiction lists are dominated to an almost ludicrous degree by books about identity and, perhaps more surprisingly, collections of essays, and the result, seen from afar. , is both repetitive and a bit flimsy (as much as editors suddenly go crazy for essays, it’s a form that takes a lot of craftsmanship and deep thought to be even half-successful). Meanwhile, pitiful neglect sets in elsewhere. While nature writing is (well, some will say) on the retreat, great literary biographies are positively on the run, although we can, I’m happy to say, look forward to Katherine Rundell’s book. Super-infinite: the transformations of John Donne (Faber, April), a new and groovy tale of the life of the great poet of sex and death.
Ah, yes: death. Grief is big business for publishing, an industry in its own right. In The Reactor: A Book About Mourning and Mending (Faber, January) Psychotherapist Nick Blackburn worries in fashionable fragmentary style about the sudden loss of his father. In This Deadly Coil: A Death Story (Bloomsbury, February) historian Andrew Doig paints a picture of the final exit through the centuries. Of course, disease is also everywhere. Those who have found Professor Devi Sridhar’s calm advice and expertise invaluable since the arrival of Covid-19 will be happy to know that she wrote Avoidable: the politics of pandemics and how to stop the next one (Viking, May). More cheerfully, Gavin Francis, the Edinburgh GP who wrote so well about the pandemic last year, has now shifted his focus – put the Lucozade on ice! – to live after disease in Recovery: the lost art of recovery (Welcome collection, January).
Some books on art. In Bacon in Moscow (Profile, January), James Birch relives his comedic / somewhat terrifying attempts to mount a retrospective of the artist in the USSR in 1988 (think of the questionable ties and honey traps of the KGB); Grayson Perry calls this ârolllockingâ. I am also looking forward to The real and the romantic: English art between two world wars (Thames and Hudson, April) by Frances Spalding, biographer of Vanessa Bell and John Minton. In pop and rock, White Rabbit, always a new imprint, shows how it’s done: so many female voices. Next year he will publish The sound of the human being by Jude Rogers (April), a thesis, formed around 12 songs, which examines why music plays such a profound role in our lives; and Rebel: Just another life to live (April), singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan’s account of how she came to record the album Just another diamond day, ignored when it was released in 1970, but loved when it was rediscovered 30 years later. However, I reserve my greatest excitement for Sound in sound: opening our ears in the twentieth century (Faber, July), in which Kate Molleson, host of Radio 3, will tell the story of 10 radicals who dared to challenge the conventions of classical music. A book that risks stinging even the most jaded ears.
Under “fascinating and unclassifiable”, let’s classify The Stasi Poetry Circle by Philip Oltermann (Faber, February) and The Premonitions Office by Sam Knight (also Faber, May). In the first, Oltermann tells the story of an experiment in weaponizing poetry for politics that began in 1982 when the East German secret police, staunch writers incorporating subversive messages into their work, decided to train border guards in the art of lyric verse. In the latter, Knight dates back to 1966, when a British psychiatrist by the name of John Barker began investigating whether the premonitions of certain people should be taken seriously in the hope of avoiding national catastrophes. Anyone who has ever wondered about the Isle of Man camp where Britain interned 30,000 German and Austrian refugees during World War II, including artist Kurt Schwitters, will be happy to get their hands on The island of extraordinary captives (Scepter, February) by Simon Parkin. We are also heading, a little late, towards An accidental icon (Hodder, April), Norman Scott’s account of his relationship with liberal politician Jeremy Thorpe; thanks to the BBC hit A very English scandal, in which he was played by Ben Whishaw, Scott’s story may grab the attention of even those who weren’t there at the time.
Finally, a few briefs. At the time (Scepter, May) is Melvyn Bragg’s first; it is about his life of six to eighteen years. Good pop, bad pop (Cap, May), Jarvis Cocker will deliver us, we are told, not so much a life story as a “loft story” (his book is inspired by a jumble found in his attic: a polycotton shirt Gold Star, a packet of Wrigley’s Extra, several pairs of broken glasses). Hamish Hamilton will also be reissued A black boy in Eton (February) by Nigerian writer Dillibe Onyeama, with an introduction by Bernardine Evaristo (the book is part of a series, Black Britain: Writing Back, whose titles she chose for the imprint). Written when Onyeama was only 21, it’s a tale of the racism he endured in the mid-1960s as the second black student in Eton’s history. “That wouldn’t let me go,” Evaristo says of a text that in 2020 prompted an apology to its author from the school principal.