When it comes to Stephen Fry, I consider myself a fan of his work. I love his dry wit, and I tend to stay pretty much in awe of his towering intellect. I won’t say I agree with him on everything, but I’m typically impressed by his ability to at least sway me to consideration on most points. For example, Fry pretty much kneels at the altars of Wagner and Mozart, and while I will certainly never scoff at those giants, my allegiance on this front is given first to Beethoven. Such differences make the world go round, and I tend to appreciate another’s insights into such matters. So it is that on one of my raids to the local Half Price Books, this time with a specific quest in mind (that sometimes happens), I stumbled upon this book completely by accident, and — wouldn’t you know it? — it jumped into my basket, no questions asked.
Essentially, this book is exactly as advertised by the title: an incomplete history of one of the broadest topics in artistic imagination. How could it be otherwise? At first blush, this book doesn’t seem that big, which is kind of surprising giving the depth and breadth of both subject matter and the man presenting it. It certainly looks smaller than the 320 pages it has, and you’d think that even as incomplete as it is, that would comprise only the first volume of a series. Or perhaps that’s just my misbegotten expectation based on what I know of Fry. Whatever the case, the book is put together with Gallifreyan technology: it’s bigger on the inside. And by that, I mean it’s quite literally crammed with information. The deeper you go with it, the more you realize there are things that probably seeped into the spine just because there was no room left on the page. But that also lends to the incomplete nature of it, because this is a history told in the form of a highlight reel on fast forward. It’s an excellent overview of the subject matter, and could not be otherwise. It’s rather profound in turns as well, as Fry’s ability to draw connections that other commentators can’t or won’t serves as the throughline for the entire book.
The things that brings this book down from its otherwise overachieving pedestal are the very things that should have kept it up there in the first place. Fry’s humor comes through as though he were reading it to you himself, which is a plus… and a minus. It actually made me want an audiobook version or a recorded version of a stage presentation, because I feel like this material and its manner of delivery practically screamed for that treatment. The other downside is that I found that, regardless of how much I was enjoying it, I had to periodically put the book down every few pages and walk away from it so as to let what I read properly marinate my gray matter. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be a downside. I have great respect for books and authors that challenge me for the right reasons, which is part of why I respect Fry as I do. But this is such a fun read that it begs you to keep going, and I just couldn’t. I had to take frequent breaks. It got to the point where I felt like I was skimming the surface while my subconscious did the deep diving when I wasn’t paying attention. It’s almost like this book wants to be a full day’s engagement but got somehow drafted into being a bathroom reader. And maybe that isn’t a downside. It’s just not what I wanted or hoped for, so in the end I can only blame myself because a book will be what it will be, and all ratings are accordingly subjective. This is the experience I had with the book. Take it with a grain of salt. But I still enjoyed it and learned quite a bit. At the end of the day, that’s always a win.