The evolution of the ghost

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The Ghost: A Cultural History. By Susan Owens.Tate Publishing; 288 pages; £19.99 and $29.95.

KINGS, queens, horses, dogs, crows. A “whirling heap of hay”. A wronged lover, an old friend, a stillborn child, an atmospheric light. As Susan Owens highlights in her new cultural history of ghosts, phantasms and spirits have assumed many guises and taken up numerous causes over the millennia. In the medieval period restless souls inhabited whatever shape they thought might get them noticed. One fashion was for a shroud tied at the top of the head in a topknot, and later a loose sheet (for ease of mobility). Some sought revenge or intervened on the side of the oppressed. Others offered moral lessons, or simply popped by for a friendly chat.

Though often dismissed as superstitious piffle, ghosts have proved surprisingly durable. The living have long spied the dead—and sought new explanations for doing so. In the 15th…Continue reading

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Personal pronouns are changing fast

NOT so long ago a man could be jailed in Texas for sex with another man. In 2015 a county clerk in Kentucky was jailed for refusing to certify the marriage of two men. Gay rights in America proceeded at an extraordinary rate between Lawrence v Texas (2003), in which …

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Giorgio Vasari, the man who created art history

Vasari made craftsmen into stars The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art. By Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney. Norton; 432 pages; $29.95 and £23.99. TOWARDS the end of his life Michelangelo Buonarroti, the most famous artist of the Italian Renaissance, began burning his drawings. He did …

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Esther Kinsky muses on a river in England

Esther Kinsky goes with history’s flow River. By Esther Kinsky. Translated by Iain Galbraith. Fitzcarraldo; 368 pages; £12.99. To be published in America this autumn by Transit Books. IN HER post-war childhood beside the Rhine, the narrator of Esther Kinsky’s third novel learns that “every river is a border.” Flowing …