Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives by John Sutherland - review by Peter Washington

Peter Washington

Literary Taxonomania

Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives


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The English have a gift for reference books: they suit our mundane genius. While the French built monuments, we compiled them: Encyclopaedia Britannica, the DNB and the OED, Grove’s dictionary, the Victoria County History. Before that, encyclopaedists and lexicographers were usually solitaries, eccentric antiquaries such as Camden, Aubrey and, most famously, Johnson, who produced his dictionary and Lives of the Poets largely unaided. Not surprisingly, Johnson was more or less mad.

John Sutherland, who harks back to this older tradition, appears to be entirely sane. To judge from his photograph, he is a genial fellow with a lively sense of humour, traits borne out by the text of this book. But he is also a dedicated taxonomaniac. Forget the nonsense on

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