Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 22nd, 2010

Books for Christmas?

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First off, I don’t see how anybody can fail to love this kid, although apparently this video has generated more than a few negative comments on YouTube:

Personally, I love getting books for Christmas. And while yesterday’s post was about potential gifts for the writer in your life, today I’m going to be talking about a few personal favorites—a handful of rare or out of print books that might make a more unusual present for a discerning writer (or reader). Some are a bit hard to find these days, but I can’t imagine my own library without them:

1. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould. Leslie Klinger’s more recent edition is a fine piece of work, but for sheer reading bliss, it doesn’t hold a candle to Baring-Gould’s original version, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the best book in the world. While Klinger tries to be objective, Baring-Gould cheerfully favors his own theories about the identity of Watson’s wives, the location of Watson’s mysterious wound, and what, exactly, Holmes was doing during the Great Hiatus. The result is a monumental work that has probably given me more pleasure, over the years, than any other single book.

2. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth. If I could own only five books, this strange but wonderful little volume would be among them. It’s ridiculously hard to find—there’s one used paperback copy available on Amazon for $25, which is the lowest price that I’ve seen in a while, and hardcover copies tend to run much more than that—but if you can track it down, it’s more than worth it. As well as a highly opinionated introduction to Zen, it’s one of the most idiosyncratic multicultural anthologies around, with much valuable poetry, both Eastern and Western, that I’ve never seen anywhere else. I don’t agree with everything that Blyth says—notably his low opinion of Coleridge—but this is still the closest thing that I’ve ever found, between book covers, to my own personal philosophy.

3. The Road to Xanadu by John Livingston Lowes. Speaking of Coleridge, this obsessive look at the composition of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is an unparalleled look at a writer’s creative process, as well as a compellingly odd book in its own right. Lowes begins by studying the scribbled quotations in Coleridge’s notebooks, and by tracing the quotes back to their original sources, he attempts to reconstruct the process by which the two great poems took shape, idea by idea, with one image leading to another. It’s speculative, eccentric, and probably unacceptable by current scholarly standards, but also riveting, with a lot of fascinating incidental material along the way. The footnotes alone are worth the price of a good used copy. (The novelist Toby Litt is particularly eloquent in his praise of this book, which you can read in an article here.)

4. World Tales by Idries Shah. Arguably the best book of folklore and fairy tales ever published, with a consistently entertaining and surprising selection of stories from throughout the world, complemented by Shah’s insightful thoughts on their origins and variants. You can buy a no-frills paperback on Amazon, but for the full experience, you’re better off tracking down a used hardcover copy of the illustrated edition, which features fantastic artwork by Brian Froud, Alan Lee, and other legendary artists. (Some of the illustrations might be a little scary, or smutty, for kids, but that’s part of the fun.)

5. The Limits of Art by Huntington Cairns. The fact that this remarkable anthology is out of print is a crime: it should be in every school and home library in the world. The concept is a simple one: it’s a collection consisting solely of works of prose and poetry that have been deemed, by one major critic or another, the best of their kind. Cairns reproduces the critic’s evaluation along with each passage—in translation and in its original language—and the result is like browsing through a compendium of the best that the human race can offer: the most famous passages of Shakespeare, Dante, and the rest, of course, but also a lot of welcome surprises. It’s hard to read even a few pages without being immediately humbled, and inspired.

One last thing: if Google would make copies of these books, especially 3 and 4, readily available online, it would single-handedly justify its digital bookstore’s existence. Google eBooks has already made it possible for me to read the books of George Saintsbury, most of which are out of print, and it needs to do the same for Blyth and Lowe. Is anyone in Mountain View listening?

Quote of the Day

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You could compile the worst book in the world entirely out of selected passages from the best writers in the world.

—G.K. Chesterton

Written by nevalalee

December 22, 2010 at 7:47 am

Posted in Books, Quote of the Day

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