Book reviews: The Cult of Beauty | The Forgotten Palestinians | The Quotable Hitchens

The Cult of Beauty ****edited by Stephen Calloway and Lynn Federle Orr V&A, £40

It's in the eye of the beholder, the clich goes. The aesthetic movement of the 19th century said so too, but beauty does seem to have resided as much with the perception of the artist – and the responsive spectator – as it did with whatever object it was they saw. The aesthetic gaze, while judgmental, had to be utterly abandoned in its passion; the beholder was to "burn", in Walter Pater's words, with a "hard and gem-like flame". The paradox of art-for-its-own-sake was then, arguably, that it saw achieved artworks as secondary to the appreciative sensibility they were emblematic of. In exploring this contradiction, contributors take us through everything from industrial development to changing gender roles, offering fascinating insights into late-Victorian life. Even so, we're left with a paradox of our own: the fact that so much of the art so lavishly displayed here should seem so ravishingly beautiful and yet so slight.

The Forgotten Palestinians ****

BY Ilan Papp

Yale, 18.99

Al Nakbah, the "Catastrophe" of 1948, saw 750,000 Arabs expelled from Palestine: the exiles' plight has been a cause of contention ever since. What, though, of the tens of thousands who succeeded in staying, only to find themselves a marginalised minority in what had been their homeland, regarded with suspicion as an enemy within? Despised and discriminated against by their fellow citizens of the Middle East's only democracy, they have to a large extent been forgotten by their friends abroad. Papp finds a despairing sort of hope in the "navigation fatigue" he believes his country has come to feel after so long seeking to steer a course between "actual … ethnic discrimination and the formality of a democratic state". As the pretence of justice is increasingly abandoned, this forgotten people might once more be brought to mind.

The Quotable Hitchens ***

edited by Windsor Mann

Da Capo, 12.99

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Mann's reverence would make a Boswell blush. Even so, his anthology does an injustice to a writer who probably is almost as important – and as entertaining – as he believes. But not in snippet or bulk quantity. Hitchens is many, brilliant things, but he isn't Wilde. Few of the remarks here are really quotable. Much of the humour languishes, left high and dry, the off-the-cuff context gone. Why would we want to read in 2011 the 1999 observation that Sixties radical Tom Hayden hadn't been of any real significance for 30 years? Be as trenchant or as witty as you like about this Eighties televangelist or that Clinton staffer, we're still going to struggle to find it interesting or funny. When Hitchens does strive for wit as an end in itself, things tend to get laborious or worse: we can go to the golf club if we want to be told that, with gin martinis as with women's breasts, "one is far too few, and three is one too many".