four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
By: 
Stuart Kelly
user_rating: 
0

An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read

A-TheBookOfLostBooksIf it isn’t enough of an existential burden knowing that you’ll never read all the great books, here comes Stuart Kelly with a compendium of short essays about volumes that either remained figments of authorial imagination or were destroyed for various reasons. Religion caused Gogol to torch the second half of Lost Souls. Faith run amuck also motivated the destruction of the famed library of Alexandria. We’re missing a few second volumes as well, including that of The Brothers Karamazov. More optimistically, the public was spared Byron’s memoirs and Max Brod defied his friend Kafka’s dying wish to destroy all his works. Though readers won’t be able to pick up the lost works by Sterne, Flaubert, Austen, or Nabokov, they can savor all the tales of what might have been.
Random House. 368 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1400062977

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Kelly at once desanctifies the author and reanimates history, putting doubt, remorse, vanity, skullduggery, opportunism, cowardice, venality, and a host of other familiar human traits into the picture. But there is a paradox about doing so, for to contemplate the botches and accidents in such concentration is to arrive at a refreshed appreciation of the works that have survived—all this emphasis on chance and fragility also turns our focus to the bounty of endurance." Sven Birkerts

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Kelly’s book is as appealing for what it is not as for what it is. In an age of slapdash laundry lists of places to see before you die, or dining establishments to visit before you leave Albuquerque, The Book of Lost Books is a work of great passion, insight, and scholarship." Joe Queenan

Sunday Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"[B]ooks that pique our interest, without then exhausting it, are curiously uncommon. How congenial, then, to find this charming and erudite book, with its wealth of mini-essays ranging across world literature." Rick Gekoski

Intl Herald Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It is the slightly batty work of an obsessive who began list-making as a child and at 15 hit on one of the authors in his book, a very paradigm of absence." Mary Blume

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Book of Lost Books is a compendium, often witty and sometimes poignant, of what Kelly has been able to discover about the books we don’t have. … Not every authorial adventure is as amusing as every other, but Kelly, originally a classicist, does what he can to make the best of his 85 subjects and their varied fates." Jane Smiley

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Some of his entries deal only in a tangential fashion with the subject of lost books. … All in all, though, Mr. Kelly has succeeded in writing a charming and diverting book, a Borgesian library of books lost or missing or never written." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Sure, it’s "esoteric and demanding" (New York Times), but that quality seems to be The Book of Lost Books’ charm. A regular literary critic for Scotland on Sunday, this is Stuart Kelly’s first book, a work born from a lifelong fascination with the missing pieces of literary history. The breadth of Kelly’s knowledge impressed critics as much as his ability to be both approachable and authoritative, even though his sense of "what counts as ‘lost’ is engagingly floppy" (Sunday Telegraph). His enthusiasm reminds readers to appreciate the books that have made it this far through human history and reminds them that not all ideas are good
ones.