Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten great books #1: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

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The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

(Note: For the next two weeks, I’m going to be chronologically counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author. It isn’t necessarily a list of my favorite books, or even my favorite novels—for a slightly dated ranking, please see here. It’s a celebration of the ten books that I’ve found myself unable to forget after a lifetime of reading, and which continue to appear in disguised form in every word I write. And although I’ll be treating them in the order of their original publication, as it happens, we’ll be starting today with the book I love the most.) 

I first encountered the best book in the world in the library of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. At the time, I was seventeen, and of course I was already in love with Sherlock Holmes: I’d even been exposed to the subculture of obsessive Holmes fans through the wonderful anthology A Baker Street Dozen, which I still think is the best introduction to Holmes and his world. What I found in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould was something much more, an entire universe of speculation, whimsy, and longing, like the Orbis Tertius of Jorge Luis Borges, built on the rich soil of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. The rules of the game were simple. Holmes, Watson, and the vivid figures who populated their slice of London had been real men and women; Conan Doyle had been Watson’s literary agent; and the published stories themselves were glimpses into a larger narrative that could be reconstructed with enough patience and ingenuity. Given the scraps of information that the stories provided, you could figure out which building had been the model for 221B Baker Street; you could piece together the details of Watson’s military record, the location of his war wound, and the identities of his three, or perhaps four, wives; you could determine the species of the speckled band and whether “The Adventures of the Three Students” took place at Oxford or Cambridge; and you could pin down, with considerable accuracy, when and where each of the other adventures took place, even as Watson—or Conan Doyle—tried to divert us with “mistakes” that were deliberate misleads or red herrings.

The result of Baring-Gould’s work, which collects nearly a century’s worth of speculation into one massive, handsomely illustrated volume, is the first book I’d save if I could own only one, and for years, it’s been living on my desk, both as a source of inspiration and as a convenient laptop stand. (Leslie Klinger’s more recent edition is lovely as well, but Baring-Gould will always be closest to my heart.) And it’s taken me a long time to realize why I care about this book so much, aside from the huge obvious pleasure it affords. It represents a vision of the world—and of reading—that I find immensely seductive. Each story, and often each sentence, opens onto countless others, and if Conan Doyle didn’t mean for his work to be subjected to such scrutiny, that’s even better: it allows us to imagine that we aren’t following a trail of clues that the author meant for us to find, but discovering something that was invisibly there all along. “Never has so much been written by so many for so few,” as the great Sherlockian Christopher Morley once said, and it’s true. These studies are spectacularly useless, and they’re divorced from any academic or practical value, aside, of course, from the immense benefit of allowing us to spend more time in this world and in the company of two of the most appealing characters in fiction. It’s a way for the story, and the act of reading, to go on forever, and in the end, it transforms us. In the role of a literary detective, of a tireless investigator, you become Holmes, or at least the Watson to so many more capable readers, thanks to the beauty of the stories themselves. What more can we ask from reading?

2 Responses

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  1. I’m constantly amazed at your wide reading, and look forward to seeing your posts anthologised in book form!

    Catherine McCallum

    September 23, 2013 at 10:16 pm

  2. Thanks so much! Maybe one day…


    September 24, 2013 at 9:44 pm

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