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: Four years ago, I published a series of posts here about my ten favorite works of fiction. Since then, the list has evolved, as all such rankings do, and this seems like a good time to revisit it. (I’m not including any science fiction, which I hope to cover in a separate feature later this year.) I’ll be treating them in the order of their original publication, but 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 most inviting introduction to the subject for the general reader. 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 grown from the rich soil of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. As the narrator relates in Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”:

Two years before I had discovered…a superficial description of a nonexistent country; now chance afforded me something more precious and arduous. Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet’s entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy. And all of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody.

The rules of the game were simple. Holmes, Watson, Mycroft, and the other vivid figures who populated their slice of London had been real men and women; Conan Doyle had been Watson’s literary agent; and the stories were glimpses into a larger narrative that could be reconstructed with enough patience and ingenuity. Given the scraps of information that they provided, you could figure out which building had been the model for 221B Baker Street; 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; determine the species of the speckled band and whether “The Adventure of the Three Students” took place at Oxford or Cambridge; and pin down, with considerable accuracy, when and where each of the other adventures took place, even as Watson, or Conan Doyle, tried to divert you 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 enormous, 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 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 this level of 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. All these studies are spectacularly useless, and they’re divorced from any real 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, or a tireless reader, you become Holmes, or at least a Watson to more capable investigators, thanks to the beauty of the stories themselves. What more can we ask from reading?

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