Slightly Foxed is my private reading pleasure. It’s British quarterly literary magazine that “introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal.” It contains articles written by people who love to read, often authors, about books they love. A good friend gifted me a subscription when I turned 40 and I’ve kept it up (with slipcovers) ever since. It pairs well with Marlon and James Read Dead People, a podcast about books by dead authors hosted by Booker Prize winning Jamaican author Marlon James and his editor, Jake Morrissey. It’s two well-red men getting catty about dead authors. It’s rum if Slightly Foxed is tea.
I don’t read them when they arrive, but keep them packed in their plain brown envelopes until I’ve got two or three piled up and need a break reading longer books. Then I read them one after another in a big inhale. A lot of the books featured are like John Moore’s The Waters Under the Earth (1965). Jonathan Keates (author) writes, “It’s hard not to see this area of England, where the three counties of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire converge, as enchanted ground, the more so for me since I grew up there.”
For most Americans, just pronouncing the names of those counties presents a challenge, let alone picturing them or imagining them as enchanted. These pieces are heavy on tea and crumpets nostalgia for me. But I read through, because there are special treats in every issue. In this issue (Summer 2021, No. 70) there were three particularly special pieces as well as pieces about learning languages in north-west Pakistan and Italian POWs who escaped from a British camp to climb Mount Kenya. The special pieces are usually special because of the way they connect to books or ideas that are important to me.
The first was a piece about Laurie Colwin’s cookbooks. Colwin wrote for several cooking publications, including a regular column in Gourmet magazine. Her books Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are collections of her columns. She wrote about food with familiarity and wry humor. The excerpts in the article sounded a lot more like something I’d hear two drinks into a cocktail party than elevated food writing, which is what I liked about them. It reminded me of Elizabeth Zimmerman, who wrote about knitting with similar aplomb. Her Knitter’s Almanac isn’t a collection of patterns as much as an introduction to a whole attitude towards knitting. In it, she describes scenes like sitting on a rock to knit while her husband sets up the tent or whirling a wet sweater around to get rid of the excess water after watching. Cooks and knitters today fuss about tools and ingredients or wool, but these ladies were sensible about it and wanted to get things done. It’s refreshing and grounding, perhaps something we need more of.
Then there was the “The Joy of Sex” piece about Casanova’s diaries. Did you know he ended life as a librarian in a castle 50 miles from Prague? Well, it turns out his autobiography, History of My Life is six volumes long and full of stories from all across Europe, and not all seduction stories. I was delighted because I’m also reading Vertigo by WG Sebald and the second of its four sections is about Casanova. These are the intersections that delight me, as if they were waiting to happen. You might call it synchronicity. Sebald is one of my favorite authors. His books incorporate images not to illustrate points, but as part of the narrative. Which isn’t to say that he refers to images in his writing, but rather that the images he selects are narrative adjacent. They add a layer of feeling and meaning to the text without being explicitly part of the text. It’s a reading experience I highly recommend (and The New Yorker agrees with me). I always feel like I float through his novels and they leave me with a feeling more than a story.
Finally, there was a piece about House for Mr. Biswas by VS Naipul. It is the way of Slightly Foxed that I thought there was a connection between this novel and Rushdie. When I looked it up, I found no link, but a reference to Swallows and Amazones by Arthur Ransome, a book I would have never heard of except for a piece in this edition of Slightly Foxed. The circle is round.
The truth is that House for Mr. Biswas came up over and over again when I was studying post-colonial theory and I assumed it was a serious book. The piece I read today, though, describes a humorous piece about a man who’s having a hard time coming to terms with his dreams, his limitations, and the people he lives around and seems to make a bit of a mess of it. That I would like to read.
So, Slightly Foxed has worked its magic again and avoided being stuffy by taking me on a journey around the world with other pieces that were about Malaysia and Rome (yes, the country and the city) and not just various corners of the British countryside. If you’re a book person and on social media, people talk mainly about new releases. Social media has become an extension of (focus of?) the publishing industry’s marketing machine.
Yet when we talk about what makes a good book, we’re looking for a good story and we often define those as enduring stories about problems and with people that we can relate to across time and geography. Story and universal themes are the magic combination. How do we find those books if people are always sharing the latest books publishers are sending out?
My favorite physical resources for finding books that are not on the best seller or new releases lists will continue to be the thrift shop, used book shops, and Slightly Foxed. We need context for our literature and for our lives. There’s much to be found in an older book or to be learned from people who still love them.