Stories Untold (II)

Kelly, a critic living in Scotland, catalogs all the disheartening ways that writers have watched their words vanish -- including a manuscript left in a "refreshment room" (T.E. Lawrence) and one sold for $1 a page by Algerian street boys (William Burroughs). Perhaps most creatively, the Russian writer Mikhail Bakhtin, while exiled in Kazakhstan, "used his work on Dostoyevsky as cigarette papers, after having smoked a copy of the Bible."

The definition of lost books here is about as elastic as Kelly could make it. It includes those works left unfinished at the author's death, such as Charles Dickens's famously incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood . Dickens would be happy to know his novel was finished by a series of literary ne'er-do-wells, including a spirit medium from Vermont who allegedly got the plot directly from Dickens's eternal soul. We'll also never read Dostoyevsky's planned sequel to The Brothers Karamazov in which the writer promised to have Alyosha "leave the monastery and become an anarchist. And my pure Alyosha will kill the Tsar!"

A lost book, in Kelly's view, also means a manuscript that was abandoned midway through. Edward Gibbon settled on The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire only after ditching his partly finished The History of the Liberty of the Swiss . Probably a wise decision. Wasn't it Orson Welles in "The Third Man" who summed up the Swiss contribution to Western civilization in two words: cuckoo clocks? (Note: Angry Swiss readers should send letters to Welles's estate, not to me.)

One novel was orphaned by no fewer than two great authors, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Close friends before their curiously vicious falling-out, each considered writing a novel based on the true story of a bigamist sailor.

And then are those books we should be thankful ended up in the ash bin. Consider Byron's Memoirs , which were burned by his publisher. A critic who saw them said they were "fit only for the brothel and would have damned Lord Byron to everlasting infamy." But if they had been salvaged, we would probably have been disappointed. Byron said he "left out all my loves ." What's the fun in that?

Kelly's writing is, at times, twee and labored (the section on Coleridge, for instance, uses a too-cute extended metaphor about what he calls "scriptus interruptus"). But that doesn't detract from the book's scholarship. And by the end, Kelly has proved his point that the Western canon "exists by chance, not necessity." If Gibbon had a longer attention span or Bakhtin had packed rolling papers, our bookshelves would look a lot different. ·

A.J. Jacobs is the author of "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World" and an editor at large at Esquire.

"THE BOOK OF LOST BOOKS - An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read" by Stuart Kelly - AVAILABLE AT BLOOM NOW!
Penguin Books ● Paperback ● 416 pages ● ISBN 9780141016740 ● 2006


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