The Common Reader

Henry Oliver
"One of my favourite Substacks... a nerdy literature newsletter.” Helen Lewis, in the Atlantic. 'I rejoice to concur with the common reader.' Samuel Johnson
Created 26 Oct 2020
  • Not quite against alcohol
    19 Oct 2021 • 4 min read
    Fergus has an excellent essay ‘Against Alcohol’. It’s a review of David Nutt’s new book, (which I haven’t read). Fergus gives a detailed summary of Nutt’s view and draws his own conclusions — namely t...
  • Let's re-think when the nineteenth century happened
    11 Oct 2021 • 4 min read • 1 0
    We are used to thinking about the nineteenth century or the Victorian period. But those boundaries are artificial. The world wasn’t very different in 1900 or 1901 than it had been before. The idea of ...
  • Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor
    04 Oct 2021 • 4 min read • 4 0
    Don’t read this book. Anyone who pays serious attention to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont ought come away from it feeling less able to cope with their life. Like grief, this will be a feeling that vanis...
  • A Town Called Solace, Mary Lawson
    27 Sep 2021 • 5 min read • 3 4
    Shortness is an aesthetic quality. This is not because short books are more concise, work better for certain sorts of subjects, encourage taut plots, or anything else like that. Short books do achieve...
  • Was Samuel Johnson a masochist?
    20 Sep 2021 • 6 min read • 2 0
    Many of the unsolved questions of Samuel Johnson’s biography are sexual. Walter Jackson Bate said that the Life of Johnson is so popular because Johnson lived such a representative life. This is certa...
  • The difference between being idle and being lazy
    13 Sep 2021 • 6 min read • 3 2
    Time was I would be able to go the National Gallery on my lunch break and watch repeats of Frasier while I dealt with the post in the mornings. Sometimes I would sit in Trafalgar Square reading art hi...
  • Who will read your emails when you're gone?
    06 Sep 2021 • 11 min read • 2 0
    Biography has a challenge: how to represent a personality in writing when digital technology can do it so much better. Virginia Woolf, inevitably, had already understood this dilemma a hundred years a...
  • Virginia Woolf and the art of rudeness
    30 Aug 2021 • 1 min read • 2 0
    What startles the first-time reader of Virginia Woolf’s diaries is her constant rudeness. She compares James Joyce to a “queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” T. S. Eliot’s first wife, Vivienn...
  • Mansfield Park: the value of marginal people
    23 Aug 2021 • 5 min read • 3 2
    The reason Jane Austen remains popular is the enormous extent to which she is misunderstood. It may be impossible to be popular for the right reasons. If you’re really a truth teller you’d better be f...
  • Do real artists write schlock?
    16 Aug 2021 • 9 min read • 4 0
    I was ill recently (nothing serious, but if you want to send chocolates and flowers I’ll readily provide my mailing address) and while I was suffering I needed a movie. Netflix provided me with so man...
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