Review: Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It by Howard Jacobson

Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It by Howard Jacobson book cover
Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It (2011) is a collection of essays from the inimitable Howard Jacobson covering diverse topics from love and language, to prejudice and fear; Dickens and Kafka, to terrorists and Sarah Palin. Drawn from Jacobson’s weekly columns for the Independent, the essays are all short and sharp, written with a mix of acerbic wit and acute observation.

Jacobson writes with real vigour and enthusiasm, never shying away from an opinion and always wonderfully funny. Admittedly, his writing occasionally slips into pomposity but his views are never less than measured. Though each is brief, Jacobson is far from direct in his essays, often wandering freely around his topic, drawing in themes and digressions only to lead them back to his central point. Opinionated he most certainly is, but won’t leave one with any false apprehensions about his stance on any particular issue.

Jacobson is a defender and devotee of the English language and this is evident throughout his writing, sometimes explicitly in arguments, at others times quietly endemic in his style. Hardly surprising, perhaps, given that Jacobson studied under F. R. Leavis at Cambridge – certainly he has imbibed some of his tutor’s sensibilities for language and literature.

But Jacobson’s interests extend far beyond literature. He is an intellectual elitist – one who enjoys the finer things that life can offer and who is uncompromising in his standards when it comes to art, upholding its value and the need for standards. His tastes are discriminating, and that’s refreshing.

Outside of the arts, some of Jacobson’s essays are less successful. Some are more like good-humoured rants from a curmudgeonly uncle, others though, express his delight in certain things and this balance keeps the collection readable. The title, as the inscription tells one, is taken from the Marx brothers’ A Night at the Opera and certainly seems to set the scene for the ranting end of Jacobson’s style. However, the title is undoubtedly far from straight-forward – Jacobson can moan with the best of them, but never unthinkingly, and there is too much he enjoys to think that this is a collection of dismissals.

This is a collection to be enjoyed for the uncompressing standards and the amusing way Jacobson attacks the daily inconveniences and absurdities of modern life. Often light but never flippant, this collection of Jacobson’s weekly columns represents a refreshing break from much contemporary writing, and many comparable columns.

Having heard Jacobson speak last year, I can certainly see that his voice has translated to the page well. Some essays really hit the mark, others are not as successful, but all feel measured and written from a perspective I appreciate.

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Matthew Selwyn said...

One of my favourite essays in the collection, to give you a feel for Jacobson's writing, is online here:

A couple of quotes to whet the appetite:

"What constitutes fit material for a public library - that is the question. Just about nothing that's in it these days is my first response. Call me a pedant, but I think of a library as a place that houses books. Books which educated opinion deems us to be the better, intellectually and spiritually, for having read."

"Don't mistake me for a puritan. I like the lunacy of libraries. I like the tramps pretending to be immersed in newspapers, and the people who have been swindled of their inheritances trying to put together lawsuits from the only law book on the shelves, and the would-be aristocrats searching family trees, and the general-knowledge freaks memorising every entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the mutterers and the snorers and the wild laughers and the rheumy old men who are here every day, from nine in the morning to six at night, shouting "Shush!" at anyone who coughs."

David Nolan (David73277) said...

I have sometimes enjoyed his columns and sometimes not. As regards his books, I tried The Finkler Question but just couldn't warm to it. According to a Tweet I saw the other day, Jacobson told a Hay Festival audience: "Readers are quick to blame the novel if they don't enjoy it. But maybe the reader is not good enough." Clearly, then, any blame for my failing to appreciate the book is entirely my own!

With regards to his comments about libraries - assuming they survive, and I hope they do - they are unlikely ever again to stock only those titles rated by "educated opinion". As a society, we simply no longer share a collective sense of what is good and bad, morally or artistically. This is not entirely a bad thing. I suspect that self-professed intellectual elitists like Jacobson would be horrified by the idea of political or religious leaders telling us what we should read; so how can anyone else claim such authority? Yes, they might justify doing so on the basis of expertise, but I would suggest that, in the sort of open society that much "educated opinion" is likely to favour, experts can only offer advice about the value of creative work, not definitive judgement.

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