Review: Love, Sex, Death and Words – John Sutherland and Stephen Fender

This is a review of a book I was sent by Icon Books, but at my request – I would have purchased it anyway, especially after having read it, so thanks to Icon.

I have been looking forward to reading Love, Sex, Death and Words for some time, having enjoyed John Sutherland’s earlier books like How To Read a Novel and The Curiosities of Literature.  This time John Sutherland is joined by Stephen Fender in assembling this huge anthology of essays about writers and books, 365 in fact, one for every day of the year, although few readers will be unable to resist reading on through several articles every time they pick up the book.

The range is vast and I will mention just a few in order to provide some idea of the scope of the book.

An entry from 1922 describes T S Eliot writing to his friend John Quinn to tell him that he has written a long poem of about 450 lines.  This is of course, The Waste Land, and we learn that it was originally to be titled, “He Do The Police in Different Voices”.  Ezra Pound was much involved in the development of this modernist opus and Sutherland and Fenton give examples of how Pound suggested minor edits which Eliot adopted.

The collection includes American literature along with European and from 1692, there is a description of the Salem Witch Trial – I for one hadn’t realised that the hysteria arising from this resulted in over 150 people being imprisoned, nineteen hanged and one 81 year old man being pressed to death under a platform loaded with stones.  It is no wonder that these events have been a rich seam for writers to mine, not least Henry Miller in his play, The Crucible, which drew out the parallels between the Witch Trial and the House Un-American Activities Committee under Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s.  Sutherland and Fender quote from the investigation into Pete Seeger who refused to answer questions about his political beliefs and ended up with a one year prison sentence.

In 1938, Isaac Aimov submitted his first science-fiction story, The Cosmic Corkscrew, to the compiler Astounding Science Fiction magazine.  The story was rejected and has now been lost for ever, but Asimov went on to write 60 science fiction books, fifteen crime novels and many scholarly treatises on The Bible, Shakespeare and quantum mechanics, his collected papers occupying 71 metres of shelf space at Boston University.

There is a comprehensive index at the back of the book, which runs from Peter Abelard to Emile Zola and its fascinating to flick through it and look up references to favourite writers.  This is a nice book to have on your shelf – a big thick wedge of over 500 pages.

The book was granted a lengthy review in The Guardian by Rick Gekoski (whose book Outside of a Dog is another fine “book about books”).  Rick said, “I’ve had tremendous fun reading them – arguing with some, substituting others, quoting them over lunch – and pleasure is at the heart of this project. Its irresistible, as compulsive as eating popcorn”.

Its not for me to publicise it but I can’t help thinking that Love, Sex, Death and Words would make a much appreciated Christmas present for any avid reader – so congratulations to Icon books on its timely release.


Title:  Love, Sex, Death and Words
Author:  John Sutherland, Stephen Fender
Publication: Icon Books (October 2010), Hardback, 496 pages
ISBN: 9781848311640


I’ve deleted the last three posts about my book blogging angst. I thank all those who commented and apologise that their words have been lost to my deleted items folder.

17 comments to Review: Love, Sex, Death and Words – John Sutherland and Stephen Fender

  • As I was reading this review, I was thinking “now who could I buy this for Christmas for” and then you suggested it would make a good Xmas present. I think I’ve found my worthy recipient – only trouble is that he (my baby brother) lives rather a long way away so I won’t be able to borrow it.

    BTW I somehow think The wasteland is a better title, don’t you?

    And, welcome back. I think most bloggers would understand … your feelings and you subsequent actions. We’ll do our best to keep you on the straight and narrow.

  • Tom

    Sue – Thanks for the comment. I think it would make a fantastic present – but not if you can’t borrow it back!

  • For as long as it’s a pleasure for you, Tom, it will be a pleasure for us to read and enjoy your thoughts about the books you read.
    Lisa
    PS You don’t have to reply to this, take it easy!

  • This sounds so great! I also read Sutherland’s earlier work, How To Read a Novel, and really enjoyed it, but I admit that I did read it in one or two sittings… I doubt I would be able to limit myself to just one essay per day! My inlaws have been probing me about what I would like for Christmas… now I finally have an answer. :D

  • Very interesting, Tom, and you’ve sold it to me. Delighted to see you back – and take it easy, as other posters have suggested: please yourself, & we shall continue to enjoy following you.

  • Tom

    Minnie – thanks for visiting – I can’t keep away from writing about books and a break has refreshed me I’m pleased to say

  • Tom

    Steph – my category “books about books” is one of my favorites. Thanks for visiting

  • Tom

    Thanks for visiting Lisa

  • I very much like John Sutherland’s books, and have the others you mention. This one will go on my Xmas wish list (and if no one gifts it I will simply order it :) )

  • […] Common Reader has a great Christmas gift for readers in this post reviewing John Sutherland and Stephan Fender  new book Love, Sex, Death, and Words. The two […]

  • Tom

    Seachanges – I’m sure you’d enjoy this one – as would any book lover

  • What a delightful book! Have you read Anne Fadiman’s “At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays?” If you enjoyed Sutherland and Fender’s book am sure you will love Fadiman’s too… :)

  • Tom

    Birdy- thanks for the comment – yes, Fadiman’s book is a favorite of mine. This one is definitely similar – you’re right

  • Not sure, if my comment worked (as my phone browser went strange. So another try. I love the sound of this book & will hint with little regard to ideas of shame & propriety.
    Parrish.
    Ps. Found you through Stu’s site & will definitely be revisiting.

  • Tom

    Parrish – the world seems to be full of book bloggers – how does anyone get around to reading us? A mystery to me.

  • Hi Tom – I sometimes wonder if we’re a vain self-gratifying lot, to paraphrase RD Laing’s Knots – blogger a loves blogger b because blogger b praised blogger a because blogger a, etc ad infinitum. But on a good day I realise that love of the written word still binds us & those that are in it purely to promote self are soon discovered (It takes too much effort to do this without passion)

  • Tom

    Parrish – yes, its the love of the written word that draws people into writing about books and which keeps them doing it. Its a huge amount of effort – I’ve written 70,000 words this year on my site (just added it all up), which is getting on for the size of a novel. Perhaps I should be writing a book instead – but perhaps there are too much of those already!

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