24th April 1998 at 01:00
In December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French magazine Elle, suffered a massive stroke. He survived with what is known as locked-in syndrome, unable to move, eat, drink or talk, but with his mental powers undamaged. He learned to blink an eyelid - once for "yes", twice for "no". As friends recited the letters of the alphabet, he "dictated" (letter by letter) The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (Fourth Estate pound;5.99). The diving-bell is the name he gives his hospital bed "prison", the butterfly one of his flights of poetic fancy.

It is a short book (locked-in syndrome produces economy of expression) but it teaches so much. Not just to be grateful for one's own powers; not just how to be a better hospital visitor - but to admire the human spirit, the imagination and especially a man who can maintain hope and humour in such a situation. It will provide some memorable passages for assemblies; on a much higher plane, Bauby teaches his reader to love life.

After which, wilful reclusivity seems perverse, even obscene. But ever since publication of his now cult novel, The Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger has sought to avoid all publicity. Not only does he refuse to give interviews, he normally bans any biographical note, author's photograph or even illustration from the covers of his books.

In 1983, Ian Hamilton embarked on a dogged and extended research exercise, intending to publish a full-length biography. Salinger took him to court and eventually prevented Hamilton from using or even paraphrasing anything Salinger had ever written.

Instead of a biography, Hamilton has therefore given us the story of his struggle, In Search of J D Salinger (Bloomsbury pound;6.99). It is an exciting detective story, a sympathetic appreciation and analysis of Salinger's novels - and as detailed a biography as we are likely to get. How Hamilton can remain as charitable to Salinger as he does defeats me.

Margaret Anne Doody's The True Story of the Novel (Fontana pound;9.99) is a very different work of literary detection. Forget the concept that the novel began with Defoe, Fielding and Swift. Her story starts with Xenophon, embraces classic Japanese and Chinese fiction and breaks down barriers between romance and "high" fiction. Consequently, Agatha Christie (for example) has her place although there is very little on children's fiction or modern humorous writers. Two other warnings - it all comes in very small print and, at a conservative estimate, is 250,000 words long. It's not verbose; just comprehensive.

In comparison, David L Edwards's A Concise History of English Christianity (Fount pound;7.99) seems like a whistlestop tour. The Salvation Army is covered in a sentence, and Catholic emancipation in a paragraph, while one congested page ties up birth control, divorce, abortion and homosexuality. But it's still an admirable primer and especially good on how the divisions in Christianity are no longer between Catholics and Protestants but between liberals and conservatives.

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