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The Plato Papers: A Novel Paperback – March 20, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

In A.D. 3700, London's greatest orator, Plato, regularly delivers bravura public lectures on the long and tumultuous history of what is now a peaceful, tranquil city, secure in the certainty of its own relationship to the past. Particularly fascinated with the dark and confused epoch known as the Age of Mouldwarp, stretching from A.D. 1500 to A.D. 2300, Plato discourses on its extraordinary figures and customs from what evidence remains. These include orations on the clown Sigmund Freud and his comic masterpiece, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious; the African singer George Eliot, apparently author of The Waste Land; and Charles Dickens's greatest novel, The Origin of Species. And then there's E.A. Poe--or rather, Poet:

The eminence and status of the author are not in doubt. The name, for example, was not difficult to interpret. Poe is an abbreviation of Poet, and by common consent the rest was deciphered: E. A. Poe = Eminent American Poet. It seems clear enough that the writers of America enjoyed a blessed anonymity, even in the Age of Mouldwarp. The word 'poet' is known to all of us, but as there are no chants or hymns in 'Tales and Histories' we believe the term was applied indiscriminately to all writers of that civilisation.
Plato also elaborates on the era's strange rites and rituals, including "the cult of webs and nets" that apparently covered and enslaved the population. But then in the midst of these brilliant, precise public performances, he begins a dialogue with his soul. Doubt begins to creep in (Is the past really past? And are the rituals of the present so superior?), leading him on a fateful journey.

The Plato Papers is an extraordinary novel. As with the best of Peter Ackroyd's fiction, it treads a thin line between fantasy and biography, the genre he so elegantly mastered in his now classic studies Dickens, T.S. Eliot, and The Life of Thomas More. Wise and salutary, it is a wonderfully observed satire of misprision and the arrogance of philosophical certainty. --Jerry Brotton --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Is each century doomed to misinterpret previous ones? That's the central question of Ackroyd's new book, more a Swiftian compendium of social folly than a novel, satirizing many of today's intellectual shibboleths. In the year 3700, a public orator named Plato educates the masses about the important texts and beliefs of previous ages. It's an imperfect archeology, though, since destroyed texts and lost information cause him to attribute On the Origin of Species not to Charles Darwin, but to Charles Dickens, placing that volume in Dickens's line of melodramatic or romantic novels. He also puzzles over the computer age, rueing the "despair engendered by the cult of webs and nets which spread among the people" and cites Edgar Allan Poe's Tales and Histories as "the unique record of a lost race." Eventually, Plato begins to suspect that his knowledge about earlier culture is fundamentally incorrect, but as he moves beyond generally accepted assumptions, he runs afoul of those in power. He's placed on trial and is forced to defend himself against accusations of "corrupting the young by spinning lies and fables." Biographer (The Life of Thomas More) and novelist (Chatterton) Ackroyd displays his encyclopedic knowledge of world literature in this philosophical satire, rendering this effort witty and cerebral. The humor is especially sharp in the sections listing common words and phrases from centuries before, and their wildly creative definitions: "pedestrian: one who journeyed on foot; used as a term of abuse, as in 'this is a very pedestrian plot.'" Or "yellow fever: the fear of colour." Toward the end of the book, Ackroyd creates a sense of how Plato's search for knowledge affects him as an individual, a welcome development in keeping the plot connected to the experimental narrative. Other elements are by turns highly intellectual, jokey, lofty and fragmented, but Ackroyd delivers a constant stream of surprising linguistic, satiric twists that many armchair cultural theorists will relish. (Jan.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (March 20, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385497695
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385497695
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #823,372 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 6, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The reviewers so far have missed the point of Ackroyd's somewhat slight but rather enjoyable satire of our age. A recommendation: re-read The Republic again, esp. books 6-8, and then return to Ackroyd's novella if it leaves you cold on the first read. And note: this is not a work of science fiction--it is a work of literary and philosophical whimsy. The point is not to present some sort of full-fledged world, nor a detailed vision of the future. The point is to gently mock the elements of our age which lie hidden from our view; hidden, because we never think to consider their peculiarity. (As an aside to a previous reviewer: it is not that the inhabitants of this "future" London do not distinguish between genders; it is, however, the case that their gender is not a part of their self-identity.) It is, in the end, a satire of knowledge, which to be sure sets us free, but also makes us its slaves.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on October 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover
What a tour-de-force! funny, thought-provoking, muscular. Neither philosophy nor sci-fi: rather a multi-dimensional mirror held up to our faces, ostensibly from the year 3700. There are discrepancies - one reader mentioned time and sexes - but these do not mar the thinking, nor the action. Perhaps it is rather geared towards the English reader. Being one of those, I recognised several more specifically English, or even London references, jokes and quizzes, which, as a recently departed Londoner, I relished. All the same, even if you've never set foot in England you can find enjoyment in this book. It reminded me of a well-risen soufflé: light, seemingly insubstantial, rather clever, rarely perfect, becoming more rich in the middle, and at the end of it, you are full and smiling with pleasure, and thinking widely.
This book leads you through many layers: satire of "clever dons", of the New Age movement's wilder claims, it touches also, with fun and ultimate compassion, on our relationship with the past, with place, with ourselves...Read it slowly enough to discover them, and fast enough to keep the pace and enjoy the wit.
Just a note: Plato's wild speculations in the first half of the book remind me of my old Greek tutor at Oxford, who would go on similar flights of fancy about the Athenian past ("let's decide, for one moment, there was an Athenian league...". It was fun, it developed the imagination and different ways of thinking and looking at reality, and it made us realise that, really, we probably understand very little of our ancestors. The Plato Papers does much the same.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Maybe the cover blurb's announcement of a "timeless literary masterpiece" inflated my expectations, but Ackroyd's "prophesy" isn't much more than a little funny and occasionally thought-provoking.
Not only is the book wildly implausible--our descendents somehow inhabit many dimensions at once, live in a layer of reality situated above our own, yet for all that aren't allowed to leave London--but it's annoyingly inconsistent, too. If people in the future have no concept of linear time (they strain to understand how "watches" could have "made" time), how do they know that the "present" is the year 3799? If they think it strange that their ancestors divided the human race into just two genders, why do they keep talking about him, her, his daughter, and so on?
The book has some good passages. Plato's reading of The Origin of Species as the great novel of the 19th century and Freud as a comic genius are both very clever, and the latter-day lexicon of contemporary (to us) English is quite funny.
But on the whole, the book is weighed down by too much murky philosophizing. This would be fine if Ackroyd offered some brilliant, fantastic vision of the future or stunning insight into our age, but he doesn't. An amusing page-turner, to be sure, but hardly our own Gulliver's Travels.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By O. Brown on October 3, 2002
Format: Paperback
Rather than argue with other reviewers, I would suggest that the reader of The Plato Papers relax, and read this work, not as a novel (which in the classic sense it is not, conforming neither to plot nor character development) but a poet experience akin to the best in modern dance. The work is evocative, and summons, rather then explicates. A few pages a night refreshes, and provokes thought. I recommend it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Aleksandra Nita-Lazar on April 13, 2007
Format: Paperback
I will start by saying that for me The Plato Papers" were an enjoyment and I really read the book in one go, sometimes laughing, sometimes stopping to think about it.

At first, I was confused by the beginning, with all the fictional quotations which make sense only later (but they do!). Indeed, this book is not a novel, but a mingle of Plato's orations and dialogues between his contemporaries.

Plato is one of the spirits inhabiting the other plane of what is London in the year AD 3700. He is the society's most talented orator and philosopher, attracting crowds to his speeches. He talks a lot about history (the past ages, including Mouldwarp, easily recognizables as the world we live in nowadays), archeological discoveries and their interpretations (which are hilarious and pathetic at the same time, leaving the reader wondering about our own, human efforts to reconstruct the past). In between his speeches, we are given the comments on them in form of dialogues (as, maybe, we ourselves are commenting on what we hear or read) and Plato's discussions with his soul. The real laugh is the sampling of Plato's encyclopedia of terms from the past.

Plato is the real philosopher - he contantly asks difficult questions and searches for answer within himself and in the outer world, which leads him to the amazing discovery of a parallel, human world in a cave (Plato's cave...) and, subsequently, to the complete change in his thinking, which brings to him a disaster.

I liked " The Plato Papers", for infinite number of cultural and literary allusions (and the whole starting point - the book is based on Plato's belief that there is a world of perfect, unflawed forms, spirits, which we cannot in any way enter and can see only as shadows on the wall of our cave...) and satyrical attitude, as well as for its uninterrupted flow and form.
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