A book that we love haunts us forever; it will haunt us, even when we can no longer find it on the shelf or beside the bed where we must have left it. After all, it is the act of reading, for many of us, that forged our first link to the world. And so lost books — books that have gone missing through neglect or been forgotten in changing tastes or worst of all, gone up in a puff of rumour — gnaw at us. Being lovers of books, we've pulled a scent of these absences behind us our whole reading lives, telling people about books that exist only on our own shelves, or even just in our own memory. This is what was on our minds one rainy afternoon in Toronto, as we sat around a dining-room table where the four of us, every few months, make manifest a sporadic but long-lived magazine called Brick: A Literary Journal
By 1998, when we conceived of the "Lost Classics" issue, Brick
had become a neighbourhood, full of essays and interviews that in turn became an international conversation: writers caught weeding, caught chatting over fences, full of chagrin and sometimes surprised to recognize each other after a season's quiet. So it felt natural to begin by asking some of our long-time contributors to tell us the story of a book loved and lost, books that had been overlooked or under-read, that had been stolen and never retrieved, or that were long out of print. We wanted personal stories and they began to pour in.
"Back in 1983, the novel received a fair amount of well-deserved attention..." John Irving wrote of The Headmaster's Papers
, with a note of premonitory despair. Margaret Atwood described a Swedish novel, a tattered paperback found in a second-hand bookstore. "On the back of my copy are various encomiums, from the Observer
, the Guardian
, the Sunday Telegraph
, the Glasgow Herald
— 'a masterpiece,' 'the most remarkable book of the year,' and so forth. Still, as far as I know, Doctor Glas
has long been out of print, at least in its English version."
Helen Garner recalled meeting the author of a beloved childhood book, unknown by anyone she knew but that she remembered vividly. "A real Australian person had written it!" she noted triumphantly. "We corresponded. I asked if she had a spare copy. She said she had only one left, but would lend it to me if I promised to return it. In due course it arrived. I hardly dared to open it. But when I did, out of its battered pages flowed in streams, uncorrupted, the same scary joy it had brought me as a child, before everything in my life had happened."
Before everything had happened. Before even the beloved book was entirely lost. The "Lost Classics" issue, as we called it, struck a chord that kept sounding long after publication. Essays continued to pour in on longed-for books of poetry, children's stories, travel diaries, novels. Why not a book
of lost classics? More stories. More lost love.
Some of the newer essays describe a child's love affair with literature that is the beginning of a writerly discipline. The young reader discovers a place to enter another world and uses it as escape. Or, refuses to come out. As Robert Creeley says, "When young, I longed for someone who would talk to me and, often as not, that person was found in a book." If childhood stories are where we learn about plot, rhythm and narrative, they also teach us morals, while explaining the darker side of human nature. We read them when we are most susceptible and over the years they continue to inhabit and sustain us.
The essays we have selected for this collection are such memories of reading: they are that dialogue with the mind of an absent other, that conversation both silent and shared, that moment when a reader seems to have found the perfect mate. But loving is a unique torment if the beloved isn't known to friends, family, the unwilling listener who must be convinced. Many versions of lostness are investigated here. There is the book that disappears from the house during a divorce, and a lost manuscript that becomes a cult classic. There is the writer who commits suicide after finishing his work, and a reader who exhumes it from the remainder bin. There are the missing libraries of India and a book that survived in spite of the odds. The essays we've chosen come from all over the world and the books are of every kind. But lost books are like dying languages: the fewer the people who remember them, the greater the risk that they will disappear for good. When, for whatever reason, a book that means much is lost, there is the need to write a eulogy, an explanation, a defence.
Perhaps this anthology maps the inner lives of its contributors. Perhaps we are set in our ways through the books that we've loved. The book mentioned to a young Harry Mathews at a grown-up cocktail party, for example, infected his imagination so seriously, that many years later, he tracked it down. And stole it. The primer called I Want to Go to School
, published by the People's Publishing House of China, set Anchee Min in the direction of her writing life. One book enumerates a system of imaginary knowledge. Another causes a journey. There are lost survival manuals and lost warnings.
Like the magazine itself, our anthology is a conversation. Michael Helm remembers a book of poetry by Philip Levine, while Levine remembers another book of poetry. Eden Robinson writes about awakening to science fiction as a teenager in Kitamaat Village. Others write of Shangri-La and Islandia. Rudy Wiebe describes the strange foretelling of his sister's death. Russell Banks discovers a lost companion to Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps
, and Cassandra Pybus writes of a lost partner to Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
. Caryl Phillips conjures Orson Welles; W. S. Merwin digs up an archeological classic; and Nancy Huston recalls a knell unheard. And, reminding us of the whole enterprise of writing in the first place, Laird Hunt quotes Borges on "a certain class of objects, very rare, that are brought into being by hope." A perfect description of this anthology about books we have loved and lost and loved again. —The Editors, Brick: A Literary JournalFrom the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Lost Classics by Michael Ondaatje, Michael Redhill, Esta Spalding, Linda Spalding. . Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.