Following a rather convoluted process, involving complaining about my subscription on CWF and soliciting some freebies, I ended up agreeing to do a book review for Canal Boat magazine. The book they sent me was a new edition of Humphrey Household's definitive account of the Thames and Severn canal. My heart sank a bit, as I'm far more interested in boats, boat life and carrying companies than in the development of canals, but I'd promised, all enthusiastic, so I thought on Saturday I had better make a start on it.
They only wanted 150 words, which is nothing; by the time I'd got the history of the edition down and a few interesting facts gleaned from the press release and the intro, there was only room for about another forty. So I thought I should glance through it so I could give an idea of the main content, and do you know what, I couldn't put it down! Probably in large part because in contrast to many similar works it's very well written (although the new edition has either introduced or left uncorrected a number of annoying typos); it started life as an MA thesis, which shows in the meticulous and extensive referencing, and also on the enormous range of archive sources consulted, and was shortened (my god, how long did MA theses have to be in 1958?) for book publication, in 1969.
Household makes a really good story of the the development of the canal, from the inadequacies of the river navigations that preceded it, and there isn't too much - but presumably sufficient - of the engineering and financial detail that other accounts often seem to get bogged down in. There are death threats and sabotage too, for added spice, and, what really wins it for me, the individuals concerned and the problems they face really come to life.
There is also one of those lists I like so much, of some of the goods carried in the late eighteenth century: Oil in runlets, hogsheads, puncheons and pipes; puncheons of perry; sugar in lumps, loaves, bags and hogsheads; firkins of butter; bobbins and matts of flax; pockets and bags of hops; casks of purgative squills; sticks of timber; a tierce of alum, and eight serons of barilla.
I haven't finished it yet; three chapters to go. But I certainly shall. And then I shall have the difficult task of cutting my review down to 150 words after all.
I doubt whether CB are planning to pay for this opus; for 150 words it would hardly be worthwhile. Certainly, in academic cirles it is accepted that you do reviews partly because it looks good on your CV (although reviews don't count for much) and because you get a free book. We are absolute suckers for a free book, even if it's one we never wanted in the first place. On this basis the most lucrative review I ever did was my first, 700 words for a journal called History of European Thought, of a new four volume compilation entitled Liberalism: Critical Concepts, which now sits proudly on my office bookshelves, bearing a retail price tag of £475. Yes, four hundred and seventy five pounds. I wasn't even particularly nice about it.