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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