Back in the 1970s, James Sutherland prompted a flurry of Oxford anthologies with his hugely successful Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. Though much admired at the time, it was, as far as the lay reader was concerned, a fairly tedious piece of work, in that too many of the extracts were from obscure writers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – which made sense in terms of copyright fees, but lent a somewhat antiquarian flavour to the proceedings. Taking us all the way from Chaucer and Thomas More to Jeanette Winterson and J K Rowling, John Gross’s replacement volume is a good deal broader in its scope (he is particularly strong on the Victorians and Edwardians, and includes American and Commonwealth writers as well as British), but it, too, is a curiously disconcerting volume, at least on first acquaintance.
The most popular anthologies, I suspect, cunningly combine the familiar and the much-loved with the unknown and the unexpected; and those who long to find all the old favourites under one roof in a literary equivalent of These We Have Loved may be in for a disappointment. As he readily