Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Book of Lost Books

The title: The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read
The author: Stuart Kelly
Publication: Random House, 2005
Got it from: JP Morgan Library, NYC, 2008

It has always fascinated me that what remains of history's greatest writing is just a fraction of what was.  I once wrote a (not very good) paper in university about the many ways in which books of history are forever lost.  This book attempts to tackle the same subject.  Where my paper dealt with the generalities, Stuart's highlights specific authors from ancient to modern times.  What, exactly was lost in the great fire of Alexandria?  (Actually several fires and a looting.)  Was Love's Labour's Won a great lost Shakespeare play or an alternate title for The Taming of the Shrew? (Answer: probably original and totally fascinating.)  Like a literary archaeologist, Stuart digs up the most obscure references to remind us of what could have been.

Except - Literary Indiana Jones he is not.   Gosh darn it, I wanted to love this book.  For one thing, I have extremely happy memories of the beautiful spring evening I bought it at the JP Morgan Library in New York City, with the sounds of a classical quartet drifting in from the atrium.  And of course I love the subject matter, the thrill of thinking about discovering some long-lost text that will offer us new insights into history.  But I just can't ignore that, besides those little fascinating nuggets that Stuart occasionally drops, most of this work is as dry as the brittle rolled-up parchment of Alexandria's lost library.  I mean, he actually comes out and states he's only going to talk about dead white male authors, with a few token exceptions.  Sigh.  In addition, rather than focusing on the lost works themselves, we are treated(?) to full-blown biographies of every famous dead writer dude in Western Civilization, in the most rambling, incoherent manner possible.  I couldn't help but feel like Mr. Burns when he yells at Reverend Lovejoy, "We've heard enough about Bliz-Blaz and Him-Ham already. Get to the bloody point!" 

In conclusion, I wanted to enjoy reading this book, but it was a chore that took me eight months and so all I can think, having finally finished it, is that were it to be lost forever to the annals of history, good freaking riddance.  

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