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Lost Classics

by The Editors of Brick

You can never have too many books. I remember Diane Schoemperlen saying that in an interview, though I can’t recall the context. The interviewer, I’m guessing, was in Schoemperlen’s house, and maybe in a moment of forthright structural doubt cried out, “Diane! You have too many books.” Whatever was said, I distinctly remember Schoemperlen replying “You can never have too many books.”

What you can have is many books. You can have them on shelves, of course, but you never really have enough shelves, so books get slanted into window-sills, piled at bedside, stored in boxes under the stairs in the basement, stacked in defensive perimeter around the desk in your office.

I have a simple plan for my books, which is this: I’m going to read all the ones I haven’t read (most of them) and re-read the ones I have (the rest of them). As soon as I clear my schedule for the next, say, 20 years, I’m going to get right at it.

Given the volume of reading ahead, the sensible thing would be to impose some kind of moratorium on new books. Of course, as a reader, this is impossible. The thing about books is that they lead to other books. I love this and rely on it. Picking up, for example, Richard Ford’s wonderful 1997 trio of stories Women and Men and reading the line of authorly gratitude to Richard Yates, then finishing Ford and searching out this Yates and discovering one of the best novels I know in Revolutionary Road.

All of which is to say hurrah for Lost Classics, an anthology of essays marshalled by the editors of the Toronto-based quarterly Brick – Michael Ondaatje, Michael Redhill, Esta Spalding, and Linda Spalding. In their introduction, they frame the book as an act of both celebration and rescue. “Lost books,” they argue, “are like dying languages: the fewer the people who remember them, the greater the risk that they will disappear for good.” True enough. In effect Lost Classics functions in a more straightforward manner, spreading the word about wonderful books you didn’t know about. What more could a reader ask for?

The book’s history dates back to 1998, when the editors conjured up a literary parlour game whereby they asked writers to name treasured books that they felt had been forgotten for one reason or another. They filled an issue with responses, and still they kept coming, which led to the book. Seventy-three writers appear here, Margaret Atwood, Anne Carson, John Irving, Colm Toibin, and Edmund White among them.

As for the books, well, they come with titles like The Salt Ecstasies, I Want to Go to School, Capital of Pain, and – this may be my favourite for all time – Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets. For the most part, the books all do truly seem like discoveries. Beyond that, there’s no good way to group them. There’s poetry, fiction, memoir, and school primers. Some are out of print, but most are still available (as Wayne Johnston points out, “A book can be in print and easy to find and still be lost‚ if no one reads it” ). Many are the works of writers who don’t have a high-profile name: Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Aaron Thomas, Hjalmar Soderberg. Some others are the lesser known works of well-known writers, from Rudyard Kipling and Stendahl to Jane Smiley and William Golding.

For those who mean to take Lost Classics up on its recommendations, the book would be a delight if it were no more than an annotated bibliography. It is, in fact, much more. No one reads a book in a vacuum: a book is, of course, connected to where you are, who you’re with, your mood, your hopes, your – everything. A reader absorbs a good book; a good book also absorbs its reader.

That means that these essays feel less like essays – they’re fonder, more passionate, personal, confessional. Lost Classics is a book of books, but it’s full of life, too. Michael Ondaatje’s childhood in Ceylon. Harry Matthews’ book-stealing youth. Eleni Sikelianos reading in an orchard, where “rocket flower bloomed up around [her] knees.”

Best of all, perhaps, this anthology is a lesson in what good books do for us. How they hold our pasts. How they, in Susan Sontag’s phrase, educate our feelings. For that, let the last word on Lost Classics echo Jim Moore on James White’s The Salt Ecstasies – “it leaves only exultation in its wake.”