Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Lose this book.

Believe me, I really wanted this book to be good. It's a clever concept, a collection of all the great books that might of been, a body of ethereal literature tantalizingly out of reach, by many of the greatest writers. So, it's ironic that The Book of Lost Books' should have the subtitle "An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read": for me, it will remain a book that's never read.

One thing about my reading: I make every effort to make it through all the books I begin. I really wanted to get through this one. And it started out fairly promising. The author, Stuart Kelly, writes in his introduction of his obsession with completeness, beginning at a very young age. Originally confined to novelizations of Dr. Who, Kelly's fixation soon extended to all aspects of literature, culminating in this volume. Beginning with Anonymous (who else?) and working through mostly western literature to postmodernist Georges Perec (d. 1982), Kelly muses over lost, never completed, never started, or otherwise not-with-us-here-today works. There are a few gems in his series of essays: the ancient Greek plays of Menander, praised by ancient authorities and thought lost for hundreds of years, were miraculously rediscovered in the twentieth century--only to reveal the great comic playwright was in actuality an overrated hack. Or the case of Camillo Querno, whose (mercifully) lost epic The Alexias was deemed so awful by Pope Leo X that Querno was awarded the post of poet laureate on the basis of his chutzpah in claiming authorship of such trash than from any artistic merit.

Unfortunately, such good moments are buried in dense, uninteresting verbiage that quickly becomes tedious. I pressed on into the account of Gottfried Vilhelm von Leibniz's Universal Encyclopedia before Kelly's pontificating just became too much. For those serious readers (and I mean those who read their Euripides in the original Greek), Kelly's book might hold their interest; for those not interested in dense, speculative prose, leave The Book of Lost Books on the shelf.

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