SOME PEOPLE read novels for fun; I read books about books. Biographies, diaries, letters, marginalia, commonplace books, bibliographies, guides, scrapbooks, memoirs, interviews collections of anecdotes, booksellers' lists, glossaries, gazetteers -- in short, anything that illuminates the act of making fascinates me. Fortunately, I am not alone, since publishers keep bringing out just the kinds of books that I want to pick up.
Take The Writer's Quotation Book: A Literary Companion, edited by James Charlton (Pushcart Press, "6.95). Charlton apparently began by collecting favorite quotations about the writing life, until one day he realized he had enough for a short book. Some are thoughtful: "There is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and a tired man who wants a book to read" (Chesterton) but most are grimly witty: "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein" (Red Smith) and -- editors take notice -- "No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft" (H.G. Wells). My favorite remark, not included here, is from tough guy Raymond Chandler: "I live for syntax."
From collecting quotaes to collecting books is only a step, but a potentially expensive one. Any Washingtonain who has attended the annual Vassar book sale knows that there is no more strung-out addict than the book collector. Probably the most popular collecting field these days is modern first editions. There are several good guides to collecting (for instance, the two Bowker essay gatherings edited by Jean Peters), but Robert A. Wilson's Modern Book Collecting (Knoph, $12.95) is sensible, engagningly written and authoritive (Wilson owns the Phoenix Book Shop in New York). Besides advice on what and how to collect, he recounts amusing stories of book deals -- among them how he aquired W. H. Auden's library -- and offers his personal list of the 50 most important American works published since World War II. Readers will find this last fun to argue with -- Wilson has a penchant for the Beats and Black Mountain poets.
Another sort of primer is Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction, edited by Martin Seymour-Smith (St. Martin's, $19.95). Something of a scrapbook, this compendium includes a history of the novel, extremely brief articles on detective and science fiction, a longer look at book illustration, and a number of author-at-his-desk profiles (included are Anthony Burgess, Barbara Cartland, Michael Moorcock and Beryl Bainbridge). But the heart of the volume is "Novelists: An Alphabetical Guide." These are brief biographical entries, with one-sentence literary critiques, followed by a star rating of two or three of the author's books. The novels are evaluated, rather vaguely, by readabillity, characterization, plot and literary merit. Although logical in its way, it is somewhat distrubing to see Allan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner receive the full complement of stars, while Ulysses is docked for readabillity.
More serious are the many errors in description from a bibliographer noted, according to the dust jacket, for "his unremitting striving for accuracy." Richard Adams' Shardik is misspelled Sharadak ; Alfred Bester's The Dark Side of Earth has long been superseded by Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester ; the author of Green Mansions is W. H Hudson, not W. E. Hudson; fletch is a reporter rather than a private eye; Jean Rhys' After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie is partly about Ford Madox Ford, not his grandfather the painter Ford Madox Brown; Susan Sontag's Styles of Radical Will collects her journalism, not her fiction. Such errors, minor elsewhere, seriously mar an otherwise invigoratingly idiosyncratic reference. Still, Seymour-Smith properly appreciates writers outside of the Anglo-Saxon mainstream and provides enthusiastic endorsement for such as Machado de Assis, Perez-Galdos and Goncharov.
For a model of modern textual editing one might browse through George Whalley's edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Marginalia I (Princeton, $60). Beautifully designed, these 871 pages cover the comments scribbled by the poet in his books. (This volume ranges from Thomas Abbt's Vermischte Werke through Richard Byfields Doctrine of Sabbath Vindicated . There are four more volumes to come.) the passages that provoked Coleridge's comments are printed in black ink, his jottings in bronw. Reading, as the introduction makes clear, was for Coleridge a strenuous activity, his great conversation with the minds of the past. He would mark up margins, endpapers and even title pages with his ideas; in 1803 this "library-cormorant" told his brother that he spent eight hours a day in reading. Modern fans will find the philosophic Coleridge prevalent here, rather than the magical poet of "Kubla Khan" and "Christabel." This is hardly a book to read , but it is proper that it should be and Princeton and the Bollingen Foundation deserve our thanks for it, as for the other volumes in their magisterial edition of STC's works.
Secrets of the World's Best-Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner, by Francis L. And Roberta B. Fugate (Morrow, $12.95) may seem like quite a drop from Coleridge. But this disorganized and repetitous book is nonetheless fascinating, expeically for fans of pulp fiction and for would-be writers. The creator of Perry Mason apparently kept every piece of paper that he ever rolled into his typewirter. The collection, donated to the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, turned out to contain more than 36 million items, what the authors call "the most remarkable collection of literary archival material in existence in that it reveals the intimate workings of a creative writer's mind throughout his career."
Gardner, who trained for and practiced law, laboriously taught himself to write. He studied Black Mask for narrative technique, corresponded with pulp editors and acted on their suggestions, made himself into a writing machine, and very nearly adopted the method of composition described above by Red Smith: "My typewriter didn't have rubber keys. The technique that I had was a two-fingered technique which caused the pounding on the hard typewriter keys to pull the flesh at the ends of my fingers away from the fingernails. I got to spattering blood on the typewriter keys, so I covered the ends of my business fingers with adhesive tape and kept on hammering away."
Gardner wrote a novelette every three days (while being a lawyer); he kept a word counter on his typewriter; he surveyed newstand owners on what fiction sold best; he developed a theory and system of plotting (given as an appendix); and after learinging to dictate, he created a 22-building fiction factory consisting of numerous secretaries and associates. Few writers may want to emulate Gardner's mecahnical approach, but his example, like that of Simenon and P. G. Wodehouse (see the latter's comparably revealing Author, Author ), should inspire anyone to become more professional.
A Literary Gazetteer of England, by Lois H. Fisher (McGraw-Hill, $34.95) is a labor of love. In 733 large pages Fisher describes the literary associations of cities, villages and hamlets of England. Bath, for instance, was founded by Bladud, the father of King Lear, is famour for Chaucer's Wife of, and is the birthplace of Laurence Sterne, as well as the setting for Jane Austen's Persuasion . Fisher is perhaps overly chronological -- each entry begins with the earliest known writer who happened to live in a particular place, and the proceeds steadfastly down through the centuries. Such as uimaginative approach makes for thoroughness but considerably lessens the browser's pleasure, especialy in the more prominent cities where nearly everyone lived for a while. But all in all this is a remarkable achievement, a geographical companion to English literature.
Speaking of browsing, what could be better than a dictionary of new words? The Second Barnhart Dictionary of New English, edited by Clarence L. Barnhart, Sol Steinmetz and Robert K. Barnhart (Harper & row, 19.95) is surprising and delightful. From Acapulco Gold to zit, here is the language really used by men -- and women. Science, politics, ethnic and minority groups seem to be the main founts of new words -- what does this reveal about our culture? -- though some of the more technical terms included here might belong more properly in specialist glossaries (ie. dimethylnitrosamine: "a cancer-producing chemical found in certain foods and in tobacco smoke"). A roomy layout and pleasantly readable type make this a handsome volume; each word is defined and its use (and sometimes origin) illustrated in a passage from a newspaper or magazine.
A blend of William and Mary Morris' Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, Mencken's American Language and John Moore's You English Words, John Ciardi's A Browser's Dictionary (Harper & Row, $16.95) is a word-lovers commonplace book. Ciardi, well-known as a poet and translator of Dante, presesnts etymologies (his own, as well as standard), remembers occasions when he heard particular words used, and offers thoroughly personal, stylish and curmudgeonly reflections on the slang and curious expressions of these United States. He is especially acute on the poetry of etymology, the buried resonances of words, as in the faint wistfulness we feel in "liquid," which in fact derives from an Indo-European root meaning to go away.
The Oxford American Dictionary, by Eugene Ehrlich, Stuart Berg Flexner, Gorton Carruth and Joyce M. Hawkins (Oxford, $14.95) strikes me as somewhat disappointing -- there are no etymologies, no illustrations, and no quotations, none of those enriching extras that the dust jacket grimly refers to as "filler material." This is described as a "back to basics" dictionary and one gains the impression that it is intended for people who don't really like dictionaries, or words. It does contain the latest jargon, occasional usage notes, and crisp, to-the-point definitions. If you merely want to know what a word means, then this book will do the job. But James Murray, the guiding spirit of the Oxford English Dictionary , would shake his long beard sadly.