The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics and Geniuses

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9780007292752: The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics and Geniuses

A wonderfully engaging and entertaining history of the great dons of the last two hundred years, by one of our leading historians of ideas. Rich in anecdote, and displaying all the author's customary mastery of his subject, The Dons is Noel Annan at his erudite, encyclopedic and entertaining best. The book is a kaleidoscope of wonderful vignettes illustrating the brilliance and eccentricities of some of the greatest figures of British university life. Here is Buckland dropping to his knees to lick the supposed patch of a martyr's blood in an Italian cathedral and remarking, ?I can tell you what it is; it's bat's urine.' Or the granitic Master of Balliol, A.D. Lindsay, whose riposte on finding himself in a minority of one at a College meeting was, ?I see we are deadlocked'. But, entertaining as it is, The Dons also has a more serious purpose, no other book has ever explained so precisely - and so amusingly - why the dons matter, and the importance of the role they have played in the shaping of British higher education over the past two centuries.

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Review:

Like a communication from a bygone age, The Dons records the eccentricities and enthusiasms the brain-workers at what Annan unashamedly calls "the elite institutions of higher education in this country"--by which he means Oxford, Cambridge and some of the London colleges. It is written with love and a kind of dry passion, and many of its anecdotes are indeed funny, although the funniest tend to be the ones in which the dignity of the dons themselves is undercut. William Buckland, for instance, was prepared to eat anything, and boasted that he had devoured his way through the animal kingdom and that the worst thing was a mole ("perfectly horrible"). Confronted with a dark stain on the floor of an Italian cathedral reputed to be the blood of a martyr he "dropped to his knees and licked it" declaring "I can tell you what that is: it is bat's urine". Elegant, amusing and in a way charming, this book is nonetheless more than a little difficult to like. Partly this is Annan's style, which is quaint and sometimes crabbed. For example he says that Oxbridge colleges "differed just as families do. One college might be rent with quarrels, another might be a cosy womb, a third an amorphous society devoid of any particular character. There were dim colleges, fusby places." More central is just how old-fashioned Annan's perspective is. Almost none of these dons are women, none at all are black or working class. There are times when Annan's own Senior Common Room narrowness of perspective becomes simply infuriating. Universities, he says, ought to exist for one reason only: "They exist to cultivate the intellect. Everything else is secondary. Equality of opportunity to come to the university is secondary ... the need to mix classes, nationalities and races together is secondary. Universities should hold up for admiration the intellectual life." Annan's idea seems to be that we should all sit in hushed awe, contemplating the enlarged intellects of his dons: that that is enough in itself to justify the university system. Without these apparently "secondary" considerations, the "elite" of which Annan is so proud, and to which he belongs, would continue to consist of a small group of white, upper-class men; and would become even less relevant to multicultural gender-equal Britain than they were in the past. -- Adam Roberts

Review:

A series of sparkling biographical essays on some of the most richly anecdotal figures of the past 150 years, which also, once the entertainment has subsided, leaves a solid deposit of information on the evolution of the ancient universities over the period.
Roy Jenkins, Sunday Telepgraph - Books of the Year

The Dons is a stylish dissection of that peculiar mixture of pedantry and frivolity which is traditional Oxbridge.
Terry Eagleton, Independent on Sunday

Annan is a man of his generation, for whose mannerisms his ear has prefect pitch.
Daniel Johnson, Daily Telegraph

This book is rich in anecdocte, elegantly crammed in by Annan’s lapidary wit… if, as Annan half-suggests, the conversation between the past and present is now dying out, one is doubly grateful for this array of vividly resurrected voices.
Caroline Moore, Sunday Telegraph

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