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Let Us Now Praise Dover Books

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The literary legacy of E. F. Bleiler

By Michael Dirda


 

Last month my friend Tom Mann—author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research and, as Washington insiders know, the man to see at the reference desk of the Library of Congress—handed me a copy of a book entitled Shakespeare, In Fact, by Irvin Leigh Matus. Originally published in 1994 as a hardcover by Continuum, this carefully researched, data-rich, and beautifully written account of Shakespeare’s life and career has now been reissued, quite handsomely, in paperback by Dover Books. I recommend it strongly—especially to Oxfordians, Baconians, and all the other groups who imagine that Shakespeare wasn’t educated enough to write such brilliant plays.

Irv Matus, who died in 2011, by himself gives the lie to that elitist canard. As Tom points out in his introduction to this Dover edition, Irv “had no formal education beyond a high school diploma, but he wrote two of the best books ever on the Bard and his era. At the time he finished the first one, Shakespeare: The Living Record, 20 years ago, he was living on a heating grate behind the Library of Congress.”

I won’t say more about Tom’s vivid portrait of Irv, except that it could have been printed by The New Yorker back when Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, and Wolcott Gibbs were writing profiles of gifted and eccentric characters. It almost goes without saying that Irv Matus was a proud member of Washington’s most mysterious and exclusive association, facetiously referred to as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but consisting of specialists and authorities on everything from forensic pathology to fingerprints to South African politics and sociology. You can’t apply to join the League, by the way, you can only be invited by its all-powerful president.

A few days after Tom gave me that new copy of Shakespeare, In Fact, I ran into Paul Dickson at a used-book store. Paul—immensely genial, in both senses of the word—is himself an obvious candidate for the League. He’s the biographer of legendary baseball manager Bill Veeck, one of the world’s experts on language (War Slang: American Fighting Words and Phrases Since the Civil War is in its third edition), and a scout for Dover Books. In this last capacity, he keeps an eye out for old and odd works that should be returned to print. For instance, Paul introduced Dover’s 2012 reissue of Old-Time Camp Stoves and Fireplaces, a practical manual first published in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. (My father might have used the original, since he joined the CCC in his youth and worked in some out-of-the-way parts of California.) Paul also wrote the text for Courage in the Moment: The Civil Rights Struggle, 1961-1964, a recent Dover “original” built around Jim Wallace’s you-are-there photographs of protests and sit-ins. Not least, this astonishingly energetic and prolific author helped Tom engineer the re-publication of Shakespeare, In Fact.

On my way home from chatting with Paul, I started to think about Dover Books and their importance in my own reading life. Because of Dover paperbacks, I was introduced to M. R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and to the adventures of Ernest Bramah’s blind detective Max Carrados, marveled at the great cases of Jacques Futrelle’s Professor S. F. X. Van Dusen, known as The Thinking Machine, and was awed by the cosmic science fiction of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Star Maker. Because of Dover Books I was gradually able to accumulate a small library of wonderful and unusual titles, ranging from the mysteries and ghost stories of Sheridan Le Fanu, to H. P. Lovecraft’s groundbreaking essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, to Martin Gardner’s first great debunking classic, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.

In those days of yore, Dover proudly trumpeted that their paperbacks were “designed for years of use,” that the paper wouldn’t deteriorate, and that the pages consisted of sewn signatures, with ample margins. Sometimes the outer cellophane layer of the covers would delaminate, but this didn’t affect the book in any serious manner: It would still open flat, and the type face, except in those publications that reproduced the actual pages of old magazine serials, would always be large and legible. In short, a Dover book was “a permanent book.” Best of all, the company’s offerings were cheap—only a few dollars new and often findable in thrift shops and second-hand bookstores. There must still be a couple of dozen Dover editions scattered around this house. Even now I sometimes take one out and study the lists of the many other Dover titles printed either on the inside covers or as an appendix.

For example, at the back of Three Martian Novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, there are 15 pages describing books about science, philosophy, history, and languages. You could then buy W. P. Ker’s extremely readable Epic and Romance, or E. K. Rand’s Founders of the Middle Ages, or W. G. Sumner’s Folkways. In my copy of Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood, the inside cover carries an extensive list of “Dover Mystery, Detective, Ghost Stories, and Other Fiction,” including Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and Five Victorian Ghost Novels, edited by E. F. Bleiler.

Everett F. Bleiler! Even as a boy, I noticed that this Bleiler guy introduced many of the books I most cared about. He seemed to have read everything, and, as I later learned, he actually had. To this day, I keep The Guide to Supernatural Fiction and Ev’s two similar volumes about early science fiction near my bed for late-night browsing: They are among the world’s most beloved, and valuable, reference books. In the first, Bleiler lists and annotates—i.e. summarizes, with capsule judgments—1,775 books from 1750 to 1960, “including short stories, weird fiction, stories of supernatural horror, fantasy, Gothic novels, occult fiction, and similar literature.” Because many, if not most, of those 1,775 titles are collections or anthologies, that means Bleiler has read literally thousands of pieces of great, good, and wholly ephemeral genre literature. The science fiction volumes cover many additional thousands of novels and stories.

These splendid books—perhaps the greatest publications ever of The Kent State University Press, yet now sadly out of print—are the harvest of a lifetime of reading. For more than 20 years Bleiler worked as an editor, later an executive vice president, at Dover, and was responsible for resdicovering and making available some of the greatest names in Victorian and Edwardian popular fiction. He was himself an exceptionally learned man, too, having written a Japanese grammar, produced a scholarly edition of Nostradamus, and contributed regularly to specialized journals about arcane works of Renaissance allegory and fantasy.

He was also kindly, generous, and modest, and I am proud to have exchanged letters and phone calls with him, and once—only once, alas—to have met him for a bookish lunch in New York. He is one of the heroes of modern literary scholarship, and I wish I’d gotten to know him more and better.

But his legacy remains. Many—and it really should be all—of his Dover editions remain in print. His great reference volumes are standard bibliographic tools for antiquarian bookdealers: “Not in Bleiler” is the sign of a truly rare work. His son Richard Bleiler, moreover, continues to extend his father’s scholarship, and has added his own researches to it.

Sigh. What I wouldn’t give to be 14 years old again, on Christmas break from school, and reading, for the first time, Gods, Men, and Ghosts, Bleiler’s selection from Lord Dunsany’s gorgeously written and clever fantasies. Oh, well. There’s one thing the adult me knows for sure: If Ev were alive today in Washington, and if he could be persuaded to join, he would certainly be one of the most extraordinary members of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

 

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.


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