"http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd"> Bibliophilia


Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby began life as Trimalchio in West Egg? Or that T.S.Eliot's The Waste Land was originally entitled He Do The Police in Different Voices (quoted from an old widow, Betty Higden, in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend)?

T.S.Eliot wrote “The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter ...” [1] but was apparently not all that good at naming books. And his poem is often referred to erroneously as The Wasteland, just as an intruding apostrophe often finds its way into Finnegans Wake.

Others must be careful to get titles right; but authors too — and their editors — sometimes struggle to find a good title, and one that will sell the book, in the first place. Some just have the knack, like Edgar Allen Poe who coined memorable titles for his gruesome tales (The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Masque of the Red Death), but Ernest Hemingway had a 600 page manuscript before he started combing The Oxford Book of English Verse for inspiration. A Farewell to Arms comes from the Elizabethan poet George Peele.

There are many such tales in one [2] of several fascinating books about books that have appeared lately. I was led to it by a collection of essays [3] about those parts of a properly published book that most people don't even notice: blurbs on the dust jackets and paperback covers, epigraphs (quotations, pretentious or otherwise, at the heads of chapters), footnotes (some writers have got so carried away that their footnotes fill whole pages and end up longer than the rest of the book!), indexes (a science and an art form in itself, with a professional body for practitioners: the Society of Indexers of the UK and Ireland), stage directions in published stage plays (which grew in length from almost nothing in Shakespeare's day, to copious essays in the century from 1850, then dwindled again) and bizarre works such as lipograms (see OuLiPo).

A great exponent of marginalia was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, when he wasn't dreaming of Kubla Khan or albatrosses, was a prolific writer in the margins in other people's books. His friends came to expect this: Charles Lamb actually relished it, and wrote an essay advising readers to “lend thy books; but let it be to such a one as S.T.C. — he will return them ... enriched with annotations, tripling their value.”

Do you know who invented the word “blurb”? It was coined (says [3]) by American humourist Gelett Burgess in A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed.

The chapter in [3] on prefaces and forewards led me to order a copy of a handsome book [4] that has been 16 years in the making and collects together openings of great literary works in chronological order starting with The Genesis Poem attributed to Caedmon at the Abbey of Streaneshalch, c. 675 and ending with Tennyson, G.B. Shaw and Wilfred Owen. The book has on a great many pages rubrics, in the true sense: explanatory notes printed in small type and red ink, in narrow columns in the outer margins of the main texts (which are in black ink). The book is expensive at 35 but was available when it appeared at half that price online. Oddly, in the context of misquoted titles, under the dust jacket the hard cover has anthology of prefaces on the spine and work as you live in the early days of a better nation on the front and back.

Some people love books as objects, to the point of always buying two copies - one to read and one to admire unsullied in the bookcase. Others read their books avidly, but buy paperbacks and tear out and discard chunks of pages as they read. Such contrasts as these habits and others are discussed in a little collection of essays [5] by a woman who, when she and her husband moved in together, found their first great crisis was whose copy had to be given away or sold of all the books of which they both owned copies. Worse, when after 5 years of marriage and a child they tried “the more profound intimacy of library consolidation” they found that she wanted to arrange her English literature chronologically (and her American alphabetically by author), whereas he just trusted that when he needed to find something it would turn up and packed them in wherever they fitted!


[1] T.S.Eliot, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939)
[2] André Bernard, Now All We Need is a Title (1995)
[3] Kevin Jackson, Invisible Forms (1999)
[4] Alasdair Gray, The Book of Prefaces (2000)
[5] Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris - Confessions of a Common Reader (1998)