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By Michael Dirda


 

As readers grow older, their tastes often become more rarified, more refined, more recherché. Certainly mine have. These days I gravitate increasingly to books almost no one else has heard of, let alone is interested in, books that are odd and quirky and usually out of print.

Simultaneously, I’ve also come to feel that if I don’t write about a book—in a review or essay—then I haven’t actually read it. Gathering my thoughts, outlining an author’s argument, framing a few apt quotations, trying to make inchoate impressions coherent—all these activities give substance to my experience of a work, make it real in a way that simply “reading” alone doesn’t.

So given 1) this liking for the obscure and 2) my desire to write about what I’ve read, you may 3) glimpse my problem. Most literary publications don’t publish essays—no matter how enthusiastic—about fiction or nonfiction that is out of print or otherwise unavailable. But suppose you want, as I do, to write about T. S. Stribling’s satirical fantasy These Bars of Flesh, or Cutcliffe Hyne’s Atlantis novel The Lost Continent, or Stella Benson’s Living Alone, or Leonard Merrick’s The Man Who Understood Women, or J. A. Mitchell’s Life’s Fairy Tales, or Amanda Ros’s famously godawful Irene Iddlesleigh or any number of other worthwhile books that have fallen off our 21st-century radar. What can you do?

Usually, I just wait and hope that a small press or paperback house will reprint a book that interests me. For instance, by labeling them reviews, I could rhapsodize about William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, J. R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday, and G. B. Edwards’s The Book of Ebenezer LePage—all these reissued in handsome paperbacks from New York Review Books. Occasionally, too, some wise editor will ask me to reintroduce a lost classic. Because of a Barnes and Noble line of “rediscoveries,” I was able to write short appreciations of Stendhal’s Memoirs of Egotism, George Santayana’s Three Philosophical Poets, and Anthony Burgess’s ABBA ABBA.

Specialized publishers by their very nature often seek out the lost and neglected. Tartarus Press generously invited me to contribute a foreword to Tales of Love and Death, a volume of Robert Aickman’s wonderfully “strange” stories. A few years back, Night Shade Press requested introductions to the fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith and to Lord Dunsany’s tall tales about Joseph Jorkens. Barbara and Christopher Roden solicited a preface to an Ash-Tree Press collection of Arthur Conan Doyle’s short supernatural fiction. I remain immensely grateful for these opportunities.

But will the chance ever come to write about Vincent McHugh’s fantasy I Am Thinking of My Darling (in which people lose all moral constraints) or William Plomer’s The Diamond of Jannina: Ali Pasha, 1741-1822 (once praised for its prose style by Edmund White), or the four Great Merlini mysteries of Clayton Rawson (who grew up in Elyria, Ohio, eight miles from my hometown of Lorain), or the historical swashbucklers of Stanley Weyman, or G.B., by W. F. Morris, once selected by Eric Ambler as one of the five best spy novels of all time ? Who knows?

As you can guess, I own all these books. They have been patiently gathered over the years, though I have often been guided by knowledgeable friends. For instance, Mark Valentine, editor of the journal Wormwood: Writings About Fantastic, Supernatural and Decadent Literature, recommended G.B. (also known as Bretherton). Robert Eldridge, whom I mentioned in the recent column about Readercon, suggested that I look into the work of Clemence Dane, Gerald Bullett, and Martin Armstrong. Tolkien scholar Douglas Anderson, who runs a blog called “Lesser Known Writers,” urged me to try David Lindsay’s gigantic fantasy Devil’s Tor, currently available only through a print-on-demand publisher. Of course, most book sections don’t review POD publications. While I’ve written about Lindsay’s famous A Voyage to Arcturus, will I ever find a venue in which to explore Devil’s Tor? Or Maurice Baring’s Daphne Adeane or the novels of Claude Farrere or T. F. Powys’s Mr. Weston’s Good Wine or Elinor Wylie’s The Venetian Glass Nephew?

There is one possibility …

Let this be fair warning: It may come about that I will, from time to time, interrupt the usual personalia and literary musings of “Browsings” to present, instead, a little essay about some odd or forgotten volume that has caught my attention and deserves yours. I hope you won’t mind such occasional pieces. Indeed, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

 

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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