Sounding off on high art, low appetite and the power of memory

This episode of Well Read Wednesday is my first non-fiction selection in the series. To think of this book as a typical non-fiction read however would be to do it a massive injustice. For all lovers of books, essays, literature and above all of words, Wordy is a genuine treasure trove. Sir Simon Schama is a true renaissance man who has chosen fifty essays, mostly from his weekly articles in the Financial Times, covering a broad palette of colourful content.

I like to think that my command of the English language is quite good and that my personal lexicon allows me to find words for most occasions. With Wordy however, I challenge anyone to tumble far into its pages without firing up their preferred online dictionary. Every page is a logophiles paradise and yet Schama has a rhythmic, if rambunctious style which carries us along from one wordy nugget to the next.

Maybe I should let him tell us about the book before I get too carried away by this perambulating polymath:

Wordy is about the intoxication of writing; my sense of playful versatility; different voices for different matters: the polemical voice for political columns; the sharp-eyed descriptive take for profiles; poetic precision in grappling with the hard task of translating art into words; lyrical recall for memory pieces. And informing everything a rich sense of the human comedy and the ways it plays through historical time.

It’s also a reflection on writers who have been shamelessly gloried in verbal abundance; the performing tumble of language – those who have especially inspired me – Dickens and Melville; Joyce and Marquez.

In May of this year I made a long overdue pilgrimage to Hay-on-Wye for the annual literary festival. I was there to support Prof. Mary Beard, who was recording a live episode of BBC Two’s wonderful Front Row Late panel show. The illustrious panel included Simon Schama and a regular on the show, the historian and TV presenter David Olusoga. These three had, not long ago, delivered the extraordinary Civilisations reboot series where Schama had written and presented five of the nine episodes. I had also recently been both informed and moved by his extraordinary documentary series The Story of the Jews. Following the recording I was lucky enough to spend some time with these charming people and of course I couldn’t resist getting the great man to sign my freshly purchased copy of Wordy.

Simon Schama is indeed a polymath, equally at home writing about art, literature, politics or history. He is an art historian, social commentator, academic historian, teacher, journalist and as a columnist he writes for many of the world’s leading newspapers, magazines and periodicals. Whatever the subject, this collection of essays is incisive and thought provoking whilst always being witty and wonderfully eloquent.

One section of the book which took me by surprise was the final group of six essays on the subject of food. Is there no end to this man’s interests?

Thankfully the whole collection is divided into manageable sections, otherwise I fear there is a very real danger that the reader could be drawn into a “just one more page.” scenario which could have you drowning in an ocean of wordiness! It is a great book to visit and revisit. I will certainly return to some parts of it again. In the meanwhile I am left with the feeling that I have been duped by a very clever irony. The author’s theme throughout the book seems to be a march against a hyped up, high brow notion of art, literature and of course, words. To use his own words they are  “….not so much dithyrambically wordy as just prolix.” Of course what he actually achieves is a wonderful celebration of those very same things in his uniquely eloquent and wordy style.