In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle feasts upon the literary trivia to be found in this book of book lists
It will come as little surprise to regular readers of this blog that I love a good book of literary trivia. Having written a couple myself, I know the joy of trying to load every rift with ore, or every page with a surprising fact. Nicholas T. Parsons, who is also the author of a wonderfully entertaining book about the joy of bad verse, wrote one of the greatest literary trivia books for dipping into: The Book of Literary Lists, which first hit high-street bookshelves (when such things were still relatively common) in 1985.
Of course, the problem with literary trivia is that the same facts tend to do the rounds. A few books in, and the reader is left waiting for the same old anecdotes and nuggets to make an appearance. Eschewing the obvious so that such veterans of bookish trivialities will find something new and satisfying, but that relative beginners will still find illuminating, is a difficult task, but with The Book of Literary Lists Nicholas T. Parsons manages to collect together an impressive number of literary facts which were previously unknown to me.
In a delightful section named ‘Calamities of Authors’, for instance, Parsons regales us with the story of the seventeenth-century Danish writer Theodore Reinking, who found his native country under Swedish rule towards the end of the Thirty Years’ War. Reinking wasn’t too happy about this, and wrote a book attacking the Swedish people, Dania ad exteros de perfidia Suecorum (1644), which the Swedes objected to, for obvious reasons. He was imprisoned, and only allowed to be released on one unusual condition: that he eat a copy of his own book. Reinking allegedly rose to this bibliophagic challenge, Parsons tells us, ‘after concocting a palatable sauce to help him get the book down.’
As the above anecdote suggests, The Book of Literary Lists isn’t a dry collection of tables and charts listing bestsellers or other such things. It does contain an impressive amount of information, but Parsons is also not averse to offering short essays on various subjects: lost manuscripts, unusual deaths of famous authors, calamities of publishers. The Italian poet, satirist, and critic Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) reportedly died of mirth, having ‘laughed so heartily at a droll and obscene adventure concerning one of his sisters that he fell off his stool and struck his head with sufficient violence to kill himself.’ Okay, so technically the blow to the head killed him, but if he hadn’t found obscenity so very funny…
Parsons’ book is also a great collection of curious attitudes to reading and books. Consider Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s four classes of book reader:
Sponges, who absorb all they read, and return it nearly in the same state, only a little dirtied. Sand-glasses, who retain nothing, and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also.
Writers, too, come in for some harsh but amusing words in a controversial list, ‘Fifty works of English and American literature we could do without’, a sort of anti-list of the 50 must-not-read books, compiled by Brigid Brophy, Sir Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne. Of Beowulf they write: ‘Admiring comment on its poetry is about as relevant as praise for the architecture of Stonehenge.’ Of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: ‘it is impossible to rate his naïve and fevered imagination any higher than that of the gentlemen who walk through the West End of London with sandwich-boards imploring us to flee from the wrath to come.’ A. E. Housman’s Collected Poems is ‘slovenly calendar-verse’. Of Rupert Brooke’s patriotic war poems: ‘Don’t go in for flag-waving if you’re limp-wristed.’ Ouch.
As one would expect from a Nicholas T. Parsons book, The Book of Literary Lists is witty, erudite, informative, and full of surprising trivia about both famous and not-so-famous figures from literature. Many of the stories connect writers and publishers: Parsons quotes from a letter he received from Rayner Unwin, who perhaps did more than anyone else to guarantee the long-term success of his father’s publishing company, Allen and Unwin. And he did it when he was ten years old, for a fee of £5: he read the manuscript of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and produced a favourable report on it, which led to Tolkien’s book being published by Allen and Unwin in 1937. Nearly twenty years later, when the firm published the much longer The Lord of the Rings, Unwin – by then the editorial director of Allen and Unwin – predicted that the novel would end up costing the publisher £1,000. The Lord of the Rings went on, of course, to become one of the biggest-selling novels in the world.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.