Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The English, by Jeremy Paxman

We all have our ideas about the English*, perhaps more so than about any other foreign people. (Unless you yourself are English. In which case, you still probably have more ideas about the English than about any other foreign people.)

And Paxman does a good job trying to explain the thoughts, attitudes, and history behind those ideas. He doesn't fight to modify or correct the common stereotypes about the English; actually, he writes that "Stereotypes are comforting, save us the trouble of fresh thought," and from time to time he is guilty of avoiding much fresh thought. He will sometimes mention that a particular stereotype derives mainly from a certain social class or region of England, and then fail to give a more accurate picture of the English that utilizes a broader base.

But many stereotypes exist simply because of their accuracy. And Paxman addresses many of these perhaps as well as anyone could, especially because it's impossible to give a solid, graspable definition of a people, and especially considering that the book is under three hundred pages (not including the index). This isn't the most gripping book I've read all month. But if you have an inner anthropologist, or are a bit of an Anglophile, it's worth a look.

*I've learned to be careful in distinguishing between "English" and "British," first because of Tolkien and much more lately because of the many people I've met this year from the Anglo-Celtic Isles. But after reading the way Paxman describes "Britain" as a political invention to encompass several nations and peoples under one title, I hope I never use it wrongly again. (For those of you uncertain about the distinction, "Britain" and "British" refer to the land and people of the island of Great Britain, which includes England, Wales, and Scotland -- and apparently some Northern Irish consider themselves British, too, but I'm not clear on that. Whereas "England" and "English" refer to the country and the people of, well, England, which is just one part of Great Britain, but not of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand... you get the idea.)

(For those of you who look at this book on Amazon, it looks like they don't sell the paperback directly. And I'll admit it's not worth the hardback price, unless you're really an Anglophile. But for the used price of some of those copies, it's definitely worth it.)

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