THE WEDNESDAY BOOK: Guided Tour through Treasures of the Past ; Signs and Wonders: Essays on Literature and Culture Marina Warner Chatto & Windus, Pounds 20

Article excerpt

IT IS an achievement on a par with winning a big literary prize for a non-fiction writer to publish a "greatest hits" compilation. Few make the grade, and fewer still justify the effort. Marina Warner is the exception. Because of her overarching interest in myth and language, Signs and Wonders has a distinct cohesion. Moreover, the book sets you looking afresh at everyday phenomena.

Until the success of Alone of All Her Sex, her 1976 exploration of the cult of the Virgin Mary, Warner made her living through journalism. Some of the more unusual pieces included come from her early days, covering the Vietnam War or interviewing Margaret Thatcher. Almost all the later items have their roots in Warner's way of looking at our past, and her ability to decode the stories and concepts that are still part of our collective imagination.

In a 1990 essay "Fighting Talk" she explores the extent to which our vocabulary of pleasure - "stunning views", "smashing good fun" - depends on the imagery of pain. She draws on historical sources, from medieval saints who went into mystical ecstasies when an arrow was plunged into their flesh to Victorian euphemism that found violent adjectives more acceptable than crude ones. At times, Warner's ability to see behind what we take for granted is almost shaming. She marries this to a simply breathtaking depth of knowledge. How many have ever stopped to consider why the symbol for the US dollar is an S with two bars? If you want to know the answer, Warner's your woman.

There is also a degree of self-exploration here that brings the author and collection alive. …