I have been away from book reviewing for a while. It has been nearly a month since I wrote my last review. I have been going through a book-reading-slump, and so I have been picking books, reading a few pages, dropping them and getting into another book, without finishing anything. I have a book-reading-slump every year, but it happens sometime during the middle of the year. The timing of this slump was unfortunate, because this is the most productive time of the year for me, reading-wise. So, to try to come out of the slump, sometime back I thought I will pick a book from my bookshelf, which had short pieces which will be easier to read. So, I picked up ‘Lost Classics’.
I discovered ‘Lost Classics’ during one of my random browsings at the bookstore. It had short pieces by writers on their favourite books, which they had loved and lost. It looked like a good book, which will be a good read when I am in the mood for short pieces (or am not in the mood for a long novel). It was the perfect solution when I went through a book-reading-slump, to nurse my reading and get out of the slump. I finished reading it a few days back. Here is the review.
Summary of the book
I am giving below the summary of the book, as given in the back cover.
Lost Classics is a compendium of glittering, witty, thoughtful, wild and wonderful-to-read short essays by some of the world’s finest writers on books that have inspired and influenced them, but are no longer available, are hard to find, or are sadly under-appreciated.
What I think
The essays in this book originally appeared in the literary magazine Brick.
Some facts about this book – it has essays by some well-known literary stars like Margaret Atwood, Jeffrey Eugenides, John Irving, Pico Iyer, David Malouf, Anchee Min, Michael Ondaatje and Colm Toibin. It also has essays by lesser known writers – atleast lesser known to me. There is also an essay by one of my favourite poets W.S.Merwin. He is one of my favourite poets on the strength of one of his poems which was introduced to me by a wise friend of mine. The poem goes like this :
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
Around two-thirds of the essay writers featured in the book are Canadian (48 out of 74). Most of the rest are American. There are probably a few Australians and maybe one or two are English. The authors I have heard of, out of the ones featured in the essays were not many – Jawaharlal Nehru, Rudyard Kipling, Jane Smiley, Philip Levine, Mikhail Bulgakov, Arnold Bennett, Stendhal, A.E.Housman, Ford Maddox Ford, James Hilton, Alfred Noyes and William Golding. It is amazing that there are so many favourite books out there whose authors I haven’t even heard of. I feel sad at this – because it is highly probable that we might pass through our whole life without reading or even knowing about a lot of fine literature. One of my favourite books was featured in one of the essays – ‘Lost Horizon’ by James Hilton. Stendhal’s work was featured two times – ‘The Private Diaries of Stendhal’ and ‘The Life of Rossini’. There was an interesting thing about poet Philip Levine – he has written one of the essays on his favourite loved and lost book, while Michael Helm has written a piece featuring one of Philip Levine’s poetry collections 🙂 It looks like the case of the author becoming a character in the book.
One of my favourite essays in the initial part of the book is about a book called ‘Classics Revisited’ by Kenneth Rexroth. This is what the writer Brian Brett says on how he discovered the book.
I first stumbled upon Classics Revisited when I was twenty-two years old, broke and broken-hearted, on my way home in the winter of 1972, having fled a doomed love affair in Oaxaca. I arrived in Santa Barbara. The hitchhiking was bad; clusters of hippies were stranded on a road still blooming with sixties strangeness and wild rumours about Route 101, tales of rednecks seeking longhairs to beat up, or victims getting acid slipped into their food and being used for weird sex. And everyone was searching for Nirvana, or at least fun. The full lusciousness of life lay ahead on that road.
Then I saw the phone booth and remembered that the fabled mountain-climbing anarchist poet, Kenneth Rexroth, lived in Santa Barbara. To my amazement, I found his name in the phone book. I dialled the number. A gruff voice answered : “Hello.”
“Hello, is this Kenneth Rexroth?”
“My name is Brian Brett. I’m a poet from Canada and I just wanted to phone and tell you I’ve read your work and admire it.”
There was a deadly pause, an embarassing silence. Finally, that bear of a voice said : “Waaallllll, c’mon up then.”
I stayed for a week. We discussed T’ang dynasty poets, potato peddling, Hermes Trismegistus, vaudeville techniques, Ezra Pound’s looniness and brilliance, Kropotkin’s theories of mutual aid, Ono Komachi’s love life and the failings of the counter culture. Nearly everything he addressed in Classics Revisited.
I left with my head in the clouds. So this was literature. Sure, he could be a terrible crank with a hiatus hernia and a tendency to grumble, but behind him was a dream, a world literature full of dignity and indignities, surprises and horrors and magic. And elegant dream, indeed.
There is a beautiful essay by Helen Garner in which she describes how she discovered that the author of her childhood favourite ‘The Journey of the Stamp Animals’, Phyllis Hay, is an actual Australian and she is still alive and how the author lends her a last surviving copy of the book and how the childhood magic all comes back when Garner reads the book again.
There is an interesting essay on Barbara Greene’s book ‘Too Late to Turn Back’ by Russell Banks. It describes Barbara Greene thoughts on her journey to Liberia with her cousin Graham Greene. Graham Greene himself wrote an account of the trip in his famous book ‘Journey Without Maps’. Russell Banks calls Barbara Greene’s book the better version and he also quotes Paul Theroux, when he says that Graham Greene mentions his cousin in his book only three eleven times in three hundred pages (while Barbara Greene gives an intimate and complex portrayal of her cousin in her book). It looks like another case where a wonderful woman writer was being ignored in favour of a more a more famous male writer. Russell Banks concludes his essay by saying “The great pleasure is to read them in tandem, his first, then hers.”
There is an essay about a book written by a mother to a son, in the ninth century AD, called ‘Handbook for William’ by Dhuoda, which was very poignant and touched me. A few beautiful lines from this book, which were quoted by the writer of the essay Anne Carson go like this :
And when I am gone, you will have this little book of teaching as a reminder : you will be able to look at me still as into a mirror, reading me with your mind and body and praying to God. Then you will see clearly your duty to me.
Michael Helm says this about the poetry collection ‘They Feed They Lion’ by Philip Levine :
We have the sense of poems proceeding not from imagination, or even memory, which is a trick of the mind, but from remembrance, a state of the being. Levine’s poems show up so much of contemporary literature as lacking a breadth of experience. The lives in these poems are not only intimate but various, and together they lend the book an unusual amplitude.
Helm goes on to say this :
Whatever its place in our times, the best poetry often seems like the last worthwhile form of public utterance. When it’s lost, the mundane encroaches without making the smallest claim on our attention. But regained, in a bit of chance mixed with faith, though nothing’s forgotten, nothing is familiar.
Beautiful passage, isn’t it?
Laird Hunt talks about a book called ‘Some Chinese Ghosts’ by Lafcadio Hearn, which was a case of so near yet so far for him and which he couldn’t read in the end. He says this about the writer –
Some writers one reads to saturation, to exhaustion; others are taken in brief, startling doses. For me, Hearn falls among the latter.
When Wendy Lesser writes about Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ she deplores the fact that Bennett isn’t read much anymore, because of Virginia’s Woolf’s essay on Bennett. Lesser then says this :
I find it disturbing that Virginia Woolf, the possessor of an intense but extremely limited form of genius, should have been able, in the course of just sixty or seventy years, to crowd a great novelist like Arnold Bennett right off the literary map. It is as if you had planted a delightfully unusual groundcover in your garden, only to discover some years later that its rampant spread has killed your favoruite oak. (Well, not oak, exactly. Charles Dickens is an oak. Bennett is more like an unruly apple tree: he could use some pruning, but the fruit is delicious.)
I have read two books by Arnold Bennett – ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ (one of my alltime favourite books – more about it in a while) and ‘Literary Taste’ (Bennett’s attempt at helping readers acquire literary taste. The book is dated now, but it is fun to discover the names of so many new authors who were regarded highly in a bygone era).
Alan Lightman describes how he discovered his favourite book ‘Far Away and Long Ago’ by W.H.Hudson.
A number of years ago, before the days of amazon.com, I journeyed cross-country to Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon in a last attempt to find a certain long-out-of-print book by W.H.Hudson. I was already a great admirer of Hudson’s more famous Green Mansions, a terribly sad novel about a romance in the green forests of South America that had haunted me for years. After wandering through acres and acres of used books at Powell’s, I entered a small clearing and spotted the relevant shelf. And there, I found five copies of the object of my desire. Out of good sportmanship, I bought only three.
Lightman will be puzzled to discover that Powell’s has also become Powells.com now 🙂
Susan Musgrave, in her essay, quotes this from the book ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’ by A.E.Housman :
…poetry gives the most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood, that perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.
This is one of my most favourite lines from the book. One of my friends said that music is a beautiful language which sometimes describes things which words can’t. I think that it is true of poetry too, though poetry uses words.
Sam Solecki says these beautiful words, while writing about William Gass’ ‘On Being Blue’ :
…the use of language like a lover…not the language of love but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches, but what it forms…
Ronald Wright writes about how William Golding’s ‘Pincher Martin’ is about scary themes :
…the book transcends belief to examine conscience and consciousness; remembrance and destiny; the rise of our personality and our species; and the forces inside ourselves that we have every reason to fear, for behind us are a million years of ruthless victories.
In the afterword to the book, Javier Marias writes about how he discovered an old-fashioned bookstore, during one of his travels. His description goes like this :
During a recent trip to Buenos Aires, a city I was visiting for the first time, I rediscovered a type of dealer in old books whom I thought had disappeared from the face of the earth, except, perhaps, from England, where everything seems to persist in its original or Dickensian state. I mean the type of book dealer who knows absolutely nothing about what he stocks and sells, and therefore doesn’t mark his books with prices, but decides how much to charge on the spot after hearing the prospective buyer’s query, and particularly the tone in which it is made. Such a dealer is guided less by binding, the print run, the date of the edition or the author than by the interest betrayed in the customer’s way of looking at and handling a particular volume. These are people who have been seasoned or, rather, trained by years of experience watching their customers browse. For these men, we buyers must, I suppose, be an open book; our reaction tells them much more about the tome in our hands than that tome could have told them when it was resting on its shelf a minute before. They know nothing about their wares but they do know how to drill into the human psyche; they’ve learned to interpret the slight trembling of fingers that go to the spine of the book, the momentary blinking of someone who can’t believe his eyes are seeing the title they’ve sought for years; they know how to perceive the speed with which you seize this long-wanted but unfindable book…
My Lost Classics
I loved reading ‘Lost Classics’. Each essay in it gave me a lot of pleasure. Reading it made me feel nostalgic and think about the books that I had loved and lost when I was younger. This book also increased the length of my ‘TBR’ list considerably J If you are one of those people who likes reading books on books and who feels nostalgic about books which you loved and lost, you will love this book.
This book also inspired me to make a list of my own lost classics. After some careful thought, I compiled a list. This is what it looks like :
(1) ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ by Arnold Bennett
This was a book which my dad read to me and my sister when I was in school. It was one of our favourite stories then. We had borrowed this book from one of my dad’s friends, but the language level was probably too difficult for me to read. Both my sister and I loved the story. My mom read it too. (The story went like this : An American millionaire, Mr.Racksole is dining with his daughter Helen at a London hotel. When his daughter wants something which is not on the menu – a filleted steak – and the hotel chef declines to make that item, because it is a fine-dining restaurant, the millionaire gets annoyed and buys the hotel. This starts a sequence of mysterious and adventurous events and unexpected things happen after that.) Then this book disappeared from the face of the earth. When I remembered about it nostalgically many years later and tried looking for it, it was impossible to find. Bennett’s ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ was more easily available, but ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ was lost. I was extremely disappointed. Then during one of my searches at different bookstores, one of the bookstore managers told me that she could get it for me. She contacted a publishing company which specialized in publishing out-of-print books and they somehow had a copy of this and I got it after a while. I read the book again and it brought back a lot of old fond memories and the book was as good this time as it was the first time I heard the story. It is one of my alltime favourite books and I still treasure my out-of-print copy. If you would like to read this book online, you can find it here
(2) Physics for Entertainment by Ya. Perelman
This was one of the books that I got when I was in school. At that time Russian books published in English, which were in hardbound editions, used to be sold for really low prices. There was a book exhibition in my school where they had Russian books on display, and that is where I got Perelman’s book. It is a classic of its time and explains physics using everyday events and concepts in layman’s language. It covers mostly classical physics and so doesn’t have things like quantum mechanics and string theory. It is a pleasure to read. I lent it to one of my friends during college days and had forgotten about it. Recently, while I was in a bookshop, I saw one volume of this book brought out by an American publisher (the original was published by Progress Publishers, Moscow during the Soviet days). The publisher had mentioned in the edition that the other volume of the book has been lost. I then remembered the copy I had owned. Luckily, the friend to whom I had lent the book, was still my friend. I wrote to him and asked him whether he had it still. It had been so many years since I lent it to him and so I thought it might be possible that it had been lost. But my friend surprised me by saying that he still had it in his parents’ place. The next time he went to his parents’ place, he got it and sent it to me. I was thrilled when I saw it! This was really a lost-and-found treasure.
(3) Peter the Great by Alexei Tolstoy
This was another book by a Russian writer that I got during the old times when the world was a different place. Alexei Tolstoy is related to the more famous Leo Tolstoy, but is lesser known. ‘Peter the Great’ is a novel which is based on the life of the Russian czar, who brought momentous changes to Russia. Alexei Tolstoy’s reputation sunk in later years probably because he supported the Soviet regime and Stalin and probably no one reads his works these days. I am sure all of his books are out-of-print, with only a few copies lying quietly in the back-row of bookshelves of readers like me. It is sad in some ways, because an author’s political work and beliefs sometimes impact the way posterity views his literary work and though sometimes we try to separate a person’s life from his work (for example, Herman Melville was a nasty person in real-life and we recognize that, but we also recognize his genius in ‘Moby Dick’. We sometimes hate Ted Hughes for his shabby treatment of Sylvia Plath, both when he was his wife, and after she died, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming a Poet Laureate), but with respect to Alexei Tolstoy, his political work and beliefs probably resulted in his literary work being sidelined. It is sad because he was a real good writer.
(4) One, Two, Three… Infinity : Facts and Speculations of Science by George Gamov
I saw this book in a pavement bookshop during college days. It was an edition published in the 60s. The bookseller sold it to me at a ridiculously low price. I haven’t heard of George Gamov before. After reading the first page of the book, I got hooked into it. It started with simple descriptions of numbers, delved into infinity and its different types (I didn’t know that there were different types of infinities before), and then goes on to talk about physics, chemistry, astronomy, the origin of the universe, the origin of life and other exciting topics. It is written for the general reader and it is wonderful. I lent my copy to a friend of mine and as it happened many times those days, we moved houses and cities and the book got lost in the cracks. Then a few years back while browsing in a bookstore, to my pleasant surprise, I recognized my old friend in the new arrival section! I immediately got it and read it from the first to the last page. It was as good and fresh as when I read it the first time. It is one of my treasured books in my personal library now 🙂
(5) Manimozhi Nee Ennai Maranthu Vidu (Manimozhi, Do forget me) by Tamilvanan
Tamilvanan was a writer who wrote murder mysteries, thrillers, self-help books and inspiring essays in my mother tongue, Tamil. He was a writer of a bygone era. He was quite famous in the 1960s and the 1970s and his books were all bestsellers. In those days, his novels were ‘hot’ in the library and it was difficult to get one of his books as they were very much in demand. Tamilvanan wrote in pure Tamil and he avoided using English words in his books. So, though the language in his books sounded contrived, they were a pleasure to read. For example, he never used ‘juice’ but used the Tamil equivalent ‘pazharasam’ which literally meant ‘the tasty water squeezed out of a fruit’ – here ‘zh’ is pronounced as ‘l’ but is stressed by folding the tongue. The names of the characters in his books were also quite original and beautiful. For example the name of the main character in this book is Manimozhi which means ‘someone whose voice is melodious like the music of a bell’. The names of some of the characters in his other books were ‘Kayalvizhi’ (‘someone who has beautiful eyes in the shape of a fish’), ‘Malarkodi’ (‘someone who has the beautiful thin curving body like a creeper’), ‘Naavalan’ (‘someone who is eloquent’). ‘Manimozhi Nee Ennai Marandhu Vidu’ is one of his most famous works. It is a story about a dad, who reveals to his daughter that he is part of a criminal gang and he is going to die soon and he asks her to escape and run away to another city. What happens to the daughter and the interesting adventures she has form the rest of the story. In later years, after I came to work, I went to the office of the publishers which published his books (the publishing company was owned by Tamilvanan and later by his sons) and got all of his novels that they had on display. Most of them were the last copies they had and they said that they were not planning to print them again as the readers’ taste has changed. But ‘Manimozhi Nee Ennai Maranthu Vidu’ was missing and the last copy of the book had been sold out. (One of the reasons given by the bookstore assistant for the company not reissuing Tamilvanan’s novels was that in an earlier era, Tamilvanan described one murder in a book and how an investigator resolved it. But today in TV there are movies and serials which have a lot of murders and so Tamilvanan’s stories had become dated. I didn’t agree with his reasoning, but I did agree with the fact that reading had come down and TV viewing had gone up). When I went to the annual book exhibition in my city last year, I discovered to my surprise that ‘Manimozhi Nee Ennai Marandhu Vidu’ has been re-issued again. I was really thrilled and got a copy. It is one of my treasured possessions in my bookshelf now.
I am happy to say that I have regained all my ‘lost classics’ 🙂
Can you remember books which you had loved and lost? What does your list of ‘Lost Classics’, look like?
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