Publishing wisdom has it that collections of essays don’t sell. I suppose this must be true, though I can’t quite understand why. In my own case, I generally spend the last few minutes of each day reading in bed and what I generally read are essays. Do other Reading Roomers share this enjoyable habit?
This past month, for instance, I’ve been dipping into my colleague Jon Yardley’s collection “Second Reading: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited” (Europa Editions), Arthur Krystal’s “Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic” (Oxford University Press), and “A Bouquet for the Gardener: Martin Gardner Remembered” (Lewis Carroll Society of America).
Jon Yardley’s reconsiderations cover every sort of book, from older classics such as Fielding’s “Tom Jones” to modern classics like Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.” Jon—there’s no disguising a friendship that goes back nearly 30 years—especially admires serious, hard-working professionals, whether novelists (John D. MacDonald, Louis Auchincloss), performers (W.C. Fields, Noel Coward, Louis Armstrong, Moss Hart), or journalists (H.L. Mencken, Stanley Woodward). He is fond, too, of comedy dry (Anita Brookner) or hilarious (James Thurber) and of unjustly dismissed “middle-brow” fiction (John P. Marquand, C.S. Forester, Irwin Shaw). He knows Southern literature—from William Faulkner and Ellen Glasgow to William Styron, Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor-- as well as anyone alive. There are 60 essays here and each will lead you back to a favorite book, or, in a few instances, notably the piece on J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” explain why a book hasn’t aged well or no longer works. For my taste, “Second Reading” is literary entertainment at its best, as well as an indirect self-portrait of one of the best read, wittiest and most fiercely independent critics of our time.
The essays in Arthur Krystal’s “Except When I Write” nearly all appeared in either Harper’s or The New Yorker. That in itself speaks to their quality. Krystal covers literary subjects—there are fine reflections on Hazlitt and Poe, for instance—but he ranges widely, writing about aphorisms and duels and the Great Depression and the ‘60s. Perhaps my favorite piece is the portrait of Jacques Barzun, the learned cultural historian whose “From Dawn to Decadence” became an unexpected best seller, a nice treat for a nonagenarian. Just this summer I reread—quite literally from cover to cover—Barzun and Taylor’s “Catalogue of Crime,” an astonishing annotated guide to mysteries and detective fiction, drawn from a lifetime of addiction. Over the years I’d enjoyed some Barzun off and on, but knew little about the man. Krystal’s affectionate précis of the man’s career and character filled me in and did so with characteristic shrewdness and wit. However, Krystal does overlook an in-joke that points to Barzun’s profound knowledge of crime fiction. The piece ends when the former student asks his old teacher about a small detail of history. “Why would you know that?,” Krystal comments with astonishment. To which Barzun answered, “It’s my business to know such things.” This is almost a direct quote from Sherlock Holmes in “A Case of Identity.” I suspect Barzun spoke the words with a smile.
Over the years I’ve been privileged and tickled to talk with, meet or review some of the most astonishing literary and cultural polymaths of our time: E.F. Bleiler, George Steiner, Harold Bloom, Marina Warner, Alberto Manguel, Robert Alter, John Sutherland. Yet perhaps the most astonishing of all might well be Martin Gardner, a man of numbers as well as letters. Gardner is best known for his long-running mathematical recreations column in Scientific American and for his ground breaking “Annotated Alice,” followed by an “Annotated Hunting of the Snark.” No one knew his Lewis Carroll better—and Gardner was comparably knowledgeable about the work of L. Frank Baum, G.K. Chesterton and Lord Dunsany.
“A Bouquet for the Gardener” collects reminiscences and appreciations by dozens of friends and admirers, including Carroll biographer Morton N. Cohen, Oz expert Michael Patrick Hearn, puzzlist and magician extraordinaire Raymond Smullyan, Norton editor Robert Weil, and Douglas R. Hofstadter (author of “Godel, Escher, Bach,” among other books). I love these sorts of festschrift, for unlike some works of criticism they are personal, humane and affectionate, true works of celebration and admiration.
To me, essay collections are high among the most easily enjoyable of books. But what do you think, fellow members of the Reading Room? Do you read essays at bedtime? Are you reading any now? Do you have a favorite author or collection? Who would you recommend? Please share your thoughts.
— Michael Dirda