For instance, science fiction’s longtime gadfly Charles Platt sent me the first two volumes of his autobiography, “An Accidental Life.” These cover his childhood in England up to his time working on New Worlds, the 1960s magazine that upended traditional science fiction. Alas, the whole project is out of bounds in multiple ways: Charles self-published “An Accidental Life,” we’ve been friends for years and the book is almost certain to be provocative, perhaps scabrous, possibly libelous. Yet according to a note from another friend, a prizewinning reporter for the New York Times, it will also be “better than anything else you will read in the next few months.”
Last week the mail brought “Haiku for Business Travelers,” a slender volume of “writing, photography, conversation.” In it, the versatile Gil Roth prints some of his poems and mini-essays, but half the book consists of extracts from an interview with the late poet and editor J.D. McClatchy. I knew McClatchy a bit, and we shared an enthusiasm for the remarkable and now somewhat underrated Thornton Wilder. Roth himself is the host of “The Virtual Memories Show,” a weekly podcast in which he entices creative folks to talk about their work as novelists, literary scholars or comic-book artists. He’s even interviewed a few journalists, among them one who reviews books each Thursday in these pages.
If, like me, you regard reading as central to your life, the essays in R.B. Russell’s “Past Lives of Old Books” will sound irresistible: “Bookseller’s Labels,” “Collecting Arthur Machen Rarities,” “Reference Books,” “Outsider Literature,” “Pruning a Collection,” “The Most Frightening Book Ever.” Care to guess the title of that last? It’s “Swastika Night,” by Katharine Burdekin using the pseudonym Murray Constantine. The novel — which, amazingly enough, was written in 1935 — depicts a future in which the Nazis triumphed, Hitler is worshiped as a god, and women are kept in pens as breeding stock for Aryan Übermenschen. Having contributed the foreword to the book’s SF Masterworks edition, I shiver whenever I see today’s mass rallies of true believers.
But why can’t I review Russell’s highly engaging essay collection? Because its dedication page reads “For Mark Valentine and Michael Dirda.”
And then there’s the Folio Society. I always feel chary about recommending the Society’s books since I’ve supplied introductions to several of them. Still, if you love “The Great Gatsby,” “Lolita” or “Atlas Shrugged,” don’t you sometimes want to own it in a beautifully printed and illustrated edition? This summer, Folio offers such reader favorites as Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher thriller, “Killing Floor,” a lavish edition of George R.R. Martin’s “A Clash of Kings” (following last year’s “A Game of Thrones”) and Roy Thomas’s showcase albums of classic superhero comics, “Marvel: The Golden Age, 1939-1949” and “Marvel: The Silver Age, 1960-1970.” As it is, I’m tempted to use up half my vacation by settling down with the Society’s three-volume edition of Norman Davies’s “Europe: A History.”
Still, I’d need to leave time for Art Taylor’s “The Boy Detective & the Summer of ’74.” Taylor is an amiable acquaintance and occasional Post reviewer, as well as a mainstay of the Washington mystery scene. His “tales of suspense” are bound to please, since they’ve won, in the words of the book’s back cover, “an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, three Agatha Awards, three Macavity Awards, and three Derringer Awards.” Moreover, the collection bears the imprint of Crippen & Landru, our premier publisher of short stories by classic and contemporary crime writers.
All my life I’ve tried to learn from my betters, so I still read a lot of older, sometimes obscure literary journalism. On one of my last pre-pandemic bookstore crawls I bought a volume titled, “T.L.S.: Essays and Reviews from The Times Literary Supplement, 1962.” None of the articles — on, for example, Oscar Wilde, the poet Tasso and the neglected comic novelist P.H. Newby — carries its author’s name: Until 1974, reviews in the Times Literary Supplement appeared unsigned. No matter: The pieces were great, whoever wrote them. As a result, I searched the Internet and paid $40 for eight more volumes of this series, going up to 1971.
Let me confess that in my basement I have four boxes filled with more recent issues of the TLS. Overall, though, I now gravitate to highly specialized periodicals, such as the Book Collector, Plum Lines: The Journal of the P.G. Wodehouse Society, two quarterlies devoted to the supernatural, Wormwood and the Green Book, the Baker Street Journal, Knight Letter: The Journal of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America and, not least, Biblio-Curiosa, Chris Mikul’s eye-opening personal zine covering “unusual writers” and “strange books.”
Unlikely as it may seem, if the above printed matter starts to run low or pall after three weeks of R&R, I can always turn to my latest project: reading British novels, published mainly in the 1920s and 30s, that depict the aftermath of global cataclysm. Most of these books, often written in reaction to World War I, are half forgotten, but the subgenre includes James Elroy Flecker’s “The Last Generation” (1908), J.D. Beresford’s “Goslings” (1913), Edward Shanks’s “The People of the Ruins” (1920), Cicely Hamilton’s “Theodore Savage” (1922), J.J. Connington’s “Nordenholt’s Million” (1923), Neil Bell’s “The Seventh Bowl” (1930), John Collier’s “Tom’s a-Cold” (1933), J. Leslie Mitchell’s “Gay Hunter” (1934), and T.H. White’s “Earth Stopped” (1934) and “Gone to Ground” (1935). They remind me that bad as things are today, they could be worse.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.