The printed bibliography is functionally obsolete. Stuck in the knowledge of its period of setting-up and publication, give or take the odd errata slip, it offers a mere snapshot in time of what was known, rather than what is. The digital database on the other hand, offers a continuously developing record of what is known and understood. Book lists can be amended with additions, deletions, and corrections. New knowledge can be incorporated, old knowledge can be refined. Of course, manipulation, falsification and misinterpretation can also take place, but as a means of finding out what was published and by whom and when, the database outstrips the printed bibliography without doubt.

That doesn’t mean there is no value in, or use for those old books of lists though. One such, a left over from my days of selling second-hand books, provides an interesting sidelight, not only on what was published, but on what was thought about it. It provides too, a reminder, that our impressions of the past can be inaccurate and misleading. The book in question is The Best Books of The War, and it covers UK publication across a range of subjects from 1939-45. It was published by W.H,Smith and Sons, in 1947, with an anonymous compiler who provides a Preface, and the initials F.S.S. That, I suspect, stands for F.Seymour Smith, who contributes An English Library (3rd,revised ed.CUP,1943) in the Literary Criticism and Belles Lettres section.

I was interested in the Fiction category, some twenty pages of titles by authors forgotten, remembered, and never known. It’s the surprises, in who was there, and how they were thought of, that are most interesting. Who was commented on, and who not so, in what the Preface tells us is a ‘bookman’s’ personal selection, challenges or reinforces our own perceptions.

The biggest surprise for me was to see Monkey listed. I remember this collection of ancient Chinese tales as a rather odd TV series of the seventies or eighties, but here it is, from Allen and Unwin in 1942, translated by Arthur Waley from the sixteenth century original by Wu Ch’ ‘eng-en.

            There are surprises too in the responses of our guide through the period. ‘Eroticism’ he tells us, ‘must not be encouraged’ but ‘may be enjoyed,’- in relation to The King Was in his Counting House, by James Branch Cabell,  Lane,1939 (let me know if you have, or do!) – neither of which, I suspect, would be said so simply and directly these days. Is this the tip (if that’s not too vulgar a word) of the surfacing permissive society iceberg?

James Joyce gets a gem of a reference, for Finnegan’s Wake: ‘It is not as daft as it seems, especially if read aloud,’ which is worth several hundred thousand words of the lit. Crit. I remember reading on it when I was a student! The short story is well represented, and so are women writers, with more of both than I would expect in a modern ‘100 books to read before you die’ listing. Authors who are still well known, and those who are not, caught my attention. ‘Old hands’ include H.E.Bates, Sir Osbert Sitwwell, and L.A.G.Strong. Bates is excluded (with a disparaging mention) by Hensher (The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, 2015), and Sitwell passed over, but Strong is a bit of a revival figure today, which pleases me. ‘Newcomers’, to F.S.S., include J. Maclaren-Ross, also in Hensher, and, surprising to me in so late a publication, V.S.Pritchett.

Elizabeth Bowen is included, with the comment, ‘a delicate touch for the short story,’ but also that ‘some of them in this volume are too literary.’

Our own assumptions, or mangled, half forgotten knowledge, of the past can be challenged or confirmed by such collections. F.S.S. quotes 61,000 books as being published during the period, of which he estimates some 20,000 will be long-lasting, serious additions to the ‘bookman’s’ trade, and life. That some have been, and others have not, reminds us that our opinions are of only passing worth, yet perhaps sufficient to occupy a minute or two of each other’s time.

A slim volume, of a mere ninety nine pages, this bookman’s selection was passed to me by my late father-in-law, Leslie Walker, a bookman to his fingertips, internationally known as Nelson’s Bookroom. He it was who told me that ‘any fool can sell books,’ thus encouraging me, as well qualified, to enter the trade – it was only half the story, I soon learned.

 

 

Readings For Writers, by Mike Smith. 12 essays on short stories and their writers.

Volume 1: Hemingway,Bierce,Chekhov,Wells,Parker,Joyce,Coover,:Lawrence,Bates,Pritchett,Arthur Morrison, & James Salter.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Readings-Writers-Essays-Short-Stories/dp/151767574XReadings For Writers cover

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