Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Those of us asked to write the occasional book review should be glad to know that we have a heavenly patron in St Photios the Great, Patriarch of Constantinople. He is the author of a work known as the Bibliotheca (Library) or Myriobiblion (Myriad of Books), a collection of capsule reviews of 279 books he had read, dating from the fifth century BC to his own time in the ninth century, nearly half of which are now lost. Each of his "book reviews" generally consists of a summary of a book's contents, a few words about its author, and a fair-minded assessment of its strengths and weaknesses.

I am particularly heartened by St Photios' attention not only to historical and theological argument, but to literary style as well. Consider, for instance, this passage from his review of the pro-Arian Ecclesiastical History of Philostrogius:
His style is elegant, his diction often poetical, though not to such an extent as to be tedious or disagreeable. His figurative use of words is very expressive and makes the work both pleasant and agreeable to read; sometimes, however, these figures are overbold and far-fetched, and create an impression of being frigid and ill-timed. The language is variously embellished even to excess, so that the reader imperceptibly finds himself involved in a disagreeable obscurity. In many instances the author introduces appropriate moral reflections of his own.
His words on Eusebius' Refutation and Defense could well be applied to any number of modern academic theologians:
His style is neither agreeable nor brilliant; however, he is a man of great learning, although wanting in the shrewdness and firmness of character so necessary for the accurate discussion of questions of dogma.
How much "post-modern" theology comes to mind when reading the next two reviews! Of Basil the Cicilians' Ecclesiastical History, St Photios writes:
The author's style is rather slovenly and uneven. He also introduces a large amount of episcopal correspondence, the object of which, he says, is to prove what he writes; these vastly increase the bulk of the book and contain but little history, and that buried under a mass of verbiage. The clearness of the narrative is destroyed by the number of parentheses.
And reviewing Philip of Side's Christian History, our saint writes:
His language is diffuse, without urbanity or elegance, and soon palls, or positively disgusts; his aim is rather to display his knowledge than to benefit the reader. Most of the matter has nothing to do with history, and the work might be called a treatise on all kinds of subjects rather than a history, a tasteless effusion.
One last passage, from St Photios' words on Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana:
All that he says about the Indians is a tissue of absurd and incredible statements. He asserts that they have certain jars full of rains and winds, with which in time of drought they are able to water the country, and again to deprive it of moisture, after the rain has fallen, since in these casks they have the means of controlling the alternate supply of wind and rain. He tells similar stories, equally foolish and preposterous, and these eight books are so much study and labour lost.
So much study and labour lost. How I know that feeling!

Speaking of book reviewers, I see that my favorite living (secular) literary critic has an important new book coming out this week in the UK and later this summer in the US.

My colleague Mike Aquilina at The Way of the Fathers has this interesting post on the origen [sic] of Christian bookishness. This is a similar and equally fascinating work.

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