Neither Times nor Literary nor Supplement

Article excerpt


Long, long ago there was an overly chatty barber.

"How would you like me to cut your hair?" he asked.

"In silence," his customer replied.

This was considered a joke in ancient Rome, and it's the kind of item I cherish in my favourite periodical, the Times Literary Supplement. For more than a century the TLS has been spreading knowledge and wisdom across the world while simultaneously displaying for its readers an ever-expanding treasury of arcane knowledge.

No truth, no thought, is alien to the TLS. Its wings spread wide enough to encompass quantum physics and T.S. Eliot, ornithology and Bob Dylan, adultery and Machiavelli, public debt and Islamic architecture. It makes all of these subjects, and more, coherent to the non-expert and treats each of them in the appropriate tone, from dignified to derisory. I've read it for decades and can't imagine life without it. If they doubled the price tomorrow I'd obediently write them a larger cheque. Mario Vargas Llosa has been reading the TLS since he learned English forty years ago: "It is the most serious, authoritative, witty, diverse and stimulating cultural publication in all the five languages I speak."

Roman humour, a subject few of us have ever explored, came to me on one of the blogs that TLS editors produce from time to time. Mary Beard, a classics professor at Cambridge and a TLS editor, wrote about the book she's finishing, Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, which I will be anxious to read when the University of California Press publishes it in the summer.

Beard explains that the barber story appears in the Philogelos, a collection of more than 200 Roman jokes, though it's written in Greek. "Exactly the same gag," Beard tells us, is attributed by Plutarch to Archelaus, a Macedonian king in the fifth century BCE. Beard has also learned that in the twentieth century it was credited to Enoch Powell, the right-wing British mp, and to get the footnote right she's checked with a Powell expert.

In her blog she writes about her family, her love of beer, her gratitude to the editors of her books, and her travel, such as a recent visit to Rome for the exhibition celebrating the 2,000th anniversary of the death of the Emperor Augustus. She's a don, but her tone is not donnish.


Readers who haven't recently looked at the TLS may be surprised to find that staff members write blogs. Regular subscribers know that in this way it's entirely up to date. It has created not only a version to be read on a smart phone but also an edition for tablets, where its excellent photographs look better than on the newsprint it has used since it began in 1902.

With persistence, talent, and a sense of purpose, a periodical creates its own unique environment, a structure where the subjects it deals with can flourish. Over time the publication begins to look something like a theatre company or an architectural firm, with its stars, its styles, and its delicately carved frame of reference. Eventually, if things work out, it becomes an essential institution. That's the case with the TLS.

But if a capacious sensibility is the paper's essential quality, that's not necessarily a source of pleasure to all of the readers. Some find it too much of a good thing. Some feel guilty about the many articles they ignore. Lydia Davis, the much-admired writer of short stories and translator of Proust, went so far as to declare her feelings in a quasi-poem, "How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through My Back Issues of the TLS" which she published in the January issue of Harper's and will include in her forthcoming book.

"I do not want to read about the life of Jerry Lewis," Davis wrote, beginning a list of what she refuses to read about: Mammalian carnivores, a portrait of a castrato, the history of the panda in China, a dictionary of women in Shakespeare, bumblebees, Ronald Reagan, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Military History. …