Sunday, February 7, 2010

Week 5- Paper Tigers

This week I read "The Book of Lost Books" by Stuart Kelly...........

The title says it all, it's a loose and wildly speculative journey through the history of what could have been, books that are either lost forever or were never completed. Instead of making it a straight-forward list of individual books, Kelly has the chapters broken down by author, starting with Homer and ending in the 20th century, which gives him a lot more leg-room. And he kicks a lot. Some chapters are about one lost book, some about multiple. Often a chapter will be less about a book than the circumstances of the author's life that led to it being lost, in particular those that were censored or burned. In these cases, the political and social atmosphere surrounding the author is, admittedly, much more interesting than whatever fiction might have survived. The result is a series of biographies chopped to shreds, with only the most insane and eccentric parts of the authors' lives left in.

The big surprise for me in reading this was that Stuart Kelly is such a wonderful writer himself. I mean, this is essentially a toilet-book for literature nerds, so it's not like he had to be too poetic about it. He could have easily just let the stories speak for themselves. But at times it's hard not to notice that his own style and prose is better even than the author he's covering. Kelly is consistently witty, with the kind of dense flowing vocabulary you would expect from a veteran novelist, not a first-time amateur historian.

The biggest problem I had with the book also concerns Kelly's style, though. Halfway through the book it started to bother me that he has a kind of balls-out final authority about every topic. The tone he presents is basically "THIS is how it was, no matter what hundreds of historians have written about these people over centuries, what I say now about them is law." He has a habit of belittling biographers, for what seems to be the purpose of propping up his own (more interesting, maybe) version of events in an author's life that contradict a popular consensus. When you take into account the fact that most biographers are fanatic experts of the personalities they write about, it's hard not to find more than a little egomania in the picture Kelly paints of them as naive and lazy.

But at the end of the day, that's a small criticism for such an interesting and unique piece of work. Kelly's enthusiasm for the topic bleeds through the pages, and if you share even a fraction of his love of reading then you will love it. Personally I got excited just to learn that something like this even existed. And you can, if you want, treat this as a toilet-book, skipping around the vignettes in any order you please.

One point that Kelly constantly hammers home is that, given the long history of wars between nations, natural disasters, and self-destructive tendencies of authors themselves, it's a downright miracle that any of our greatest literature exists at all. After reading this book, it's hard to disagree, and even harder to not harbor a little more appreciation for the rest of your bookshelf as well.