Monday, February 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #55: The Literary Companion edited by Emma Jones

Today's lesson is in the dangers of procrastination: reading a book of random facts and factoids a decade after its original publication will make it just old enough to seem outdated and not old enough to seem quaint. This is in no way the book's fault: it couldn't possibly be. But sitting on a stack of books of interesting tidbits for reading in the smallest room in the house will only work well if those books are not allowed to mature beyond their sell-by date.

Publishing is as subject to manias and enthusiasms as any other business dependent on the whims of the public, and one such unlikely surge came in the early aughts, after the surprising success in 2002 of Schott's Original Miscellany, a carefully curated and heavily designed small book of facts, figures, and other oddities. As usual, its compiler, Ben Schott, went on to create a series of nearly-as-good books in the same vein, to slightly diminishing returns. And other publishing firms decided to publish similar books: small hardcovers, with a lot of semi-random facts, in tan dustwrappers with a tasteful pen drawing for cover art. (The last was possibly the most important thing: if you want to ride a wave, you need to make sure your product looks like it's already part of that wave.)

And so the "Think Books" came to pass. I'm sure they were packaged by someone, but I don't know who. They seem to have come in a rush between 2003 and 2005, when this particular mania crashed and everyone moved on to something else. Robson published them in the UK, and it looks like Anova picked up some or all of them on my side of the pond. (The book I have in front of me is a Robson edition, distributed by the great people at Trafalgar Square, who get real British books out into the wilds of America, as if it were still 1830. I love them for that.) At some point in 2004 or 2005, some of these books were pitched to the book clubs I worked for, and the Emma Jones-edited volume The Literary Companion made its way first to the discard bookcase and then home with me, to my own to-be-read bookcases.

All that is inside baseball and publishing backstory, though. What it resulted in is a book of literary facts and figures -- each of the page numbers is actually a little nugget of information about that number, as, for example, page 21 is the age Rimbaud retired from poetry -- all organized nicely on the page, if not as precisely and time-consumingly as the original Schott books were. (This is the hallmark of the wave-follower: they look generally similar, but strip out the aspects of the original that take the most time, effort, and care.) The Literary Companion has a tropism towards high culture and towards the UK, which is only to be expected. It also is only up-to-date as of 2003, which leads to some interesting facts about e-books, bestseller lists, and other aspects of our fast-moving times.

Of course, details of the great 19th century writers have not dated much since 2004, so most of The Literary Companion is exactly as useful and correct as it ever was. But those contemporary moment can be jarring when they hit and the reader remembers that publishing was not quite the same business a decade ago. If you come across this book -- I imagine all of the Think Books are not that easy to find now -- and are interested in both the literary greats and trivia, it's still definitely worth the time. But I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to find it -- or, like me, sitting on it for ten years before reading.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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