The Two Cultures – What am I Reading Right Now?

Yes, on Friday’s it’s book reviews, and today I am going to compare two very different and yet oddly similar writers I’ve been reading.  They are – CP Snow

and Kathy Reichs:

On the face of it they could hardly be more different: Snow died in the 1980’s and is now only remembered for two phrases: corridors of power, which is now in common parlance, and the two cultures, a phrase which expresses the gulf between the arts and sciences.  On the latter, he said with some justification that, whilst many scientists have read some works of fiction, on the arts side most people would be unable to tell you the second law of thermodynamics – and that this is basically the equivalent of asking ‘have you read a book?’

I myself have only the haziest idea about the laws of thermodynamics, but I think the second one is the phrase about heat not itself being able to move from a colder body to a hotter body.  Or ‘the entropy of a closed system tends towards the maximum’.  Is that right?  Hang on, let’s check:

OK I’ve read that and I’m none the wiser…

But I digress.  Although Snow and Reichs are about as different as two writers in English can be, they do have things in common.  They both write in the first person, and both write series of books based more or less on their own professional experiences (Snow was a barrister and civil servant, Reichs is a forensic anthropologist who helps to solve murders) but there is much more to divide them than to unite them.  Reichs is the perfect antidote to too much Snow and a typical sentence of his might he:

‘It was a tough compromise in one sense, but in the end it was more than we could reasonably have expected.’

A typical sentence of Reichs’ would be:

‘I goosed my speed – I wasn’t going to put up with any of Ryan’s crap.’

They are divided by a continent (Reichs sets her novels in Montreal and Alabama, Snow is firmly English) and by a couple of generations.  On the other hand, both excel at depicting character and in description – and in narration – they both draw you in.  With Reichs you are, as it were, sucked into the updraught by the sheer velocity of her plots; with Snow the process is one of slow hypnotism: I came across ‘The Masters’ when I was eighteen and though normally I wouldn’t give a toss about who wins an election to the Mastership of a Cambridge college in the 1930’s; bit by bit, he draws you in until you care terribly about who wins.]

He is a persuasive writer where Reichs is a thrilling one.

In his day Snow was occasionally compared to Proust, which seems absurd nowadays.  It’s not altogether unfair – he has the cast of characters and the insight into social mores – but he doesn’t have Proust’s depth, nor his gift for philosophy.  So that, although this prophet of the (white male) meritocracy is able to see deeply into the society he depicts, he’s not able to see beyond it – and that is why he hasn’t survived the passing of that society.

The only problem I have with Reichs, though, is one I find with a lot of modern writers, ie the sheer complexity of plot.  With any Ian Rankin novel, for example, I have to read it two or three times to get all the ins and outs of the storyline, and it’ s almost as complex with Reichs.  The sheer welter of information that’s coming at me is overwhelming.  I don’t know if that’s just me – I’m not a particularly narrative-based person – or if it’s common to a lot of people, but I find it quite troublesome; whereas Snow’s plots don’t cause me any trouble at all.

So there you are – two writers divided by a common language.  I recommend anything by Kathy Reichs but if you don’t like teen stories then avoid the ‘virals’ range and just go for the others.  As for Snow, ‘Corridors of Power’ is an interesting read, as is ‘The Masters’, and ‘The Light and the Dark’ is an intense and insightful analysis of what we would now call bipolar syndrome.


Kirk out


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