Visions of Paradise

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A Reader's Delight

I have two loves in my writing: the love of writing fiction, and the love of writing essays. By essays I mean a fairly broad array of material including reviews of fiction, observations on the world, and journal entries. I have no illusions that I will ever be a particularly good essayist (any more than I am a particularly good writer of fiction), but after 25 years of practice I feel at least tolerable at it.

But there are certainly essayists who can write rings around me in their sleep. Such a writer is Noel Perrin. What Mr. Perrin does is review books. Not newly-published books, nor perennial classics or milestone works. What Perrin reviews are Forgotten Books, Remembered Books, Honored Books, Orphaned Books. At least that is his claim in the introduction to his collected reviews A Reader’s Delight. In the book he gathers reviews of 40 books that he feels have been unfairly neglected, either from their first publication or since their initial fame. As he claims in the introduction, the book’s purpose is to steer people towards a winter’s worth or a summer’s worth of unusually pleasing reading.

And steer he does! 40 delightful essays about 40 books that from reading Mr. Perrin’s warm sentences all seem wonderful indeed. The books range from a diary to nonfiction works to such SF/fantasy genre works as Lord Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan, James Branch Cabell’s The Silver Stallion, and Peter Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place.

I hesitate to begin describing the reviews, lest my long-windedness gets the better of me and I pull a Samuel R. Delanyish trick of spending 200 pages analyzing a book of 200 pages. But I must say something about the wonders Perrin describes. Such as Henriette Roosenberg’s autobiographical The Night-and-Fog People, about her imprisonment by the Nazis as a member of the Dutch resistence movement. The book is not just another tale of perseverance and depression in a concentration camp, but rather about her experiences when the Nazis were overthrown and she was freed from the camp, since Roosenberg and her Dutch comrades were freed by the Russians who refused to allow anybody to pass through their lines.

Or George Templeton Strong’s four-volume, two thousand page diary, spanning his life from age 15 to his death some 50 years later. And what a diary it is, chock-full of observations on the progress of life in 19th century America, particularly in Strong’s local town New York City, as well as the opinions and feelings of Strong himself. Perrin’s description of the diary, as well as the few excerpts contained within, both awed and depressed a fellow diarist who realizes that my own recitation of daily events absolutely pale into insignificance by comparison. No wonder Perrin titles this chapter of the book America’s Greatest Diarist.

Naturally I wanted to run out and buy every single one of Perrin’s delightful books, but *alas* several of them are not even available in print. And, of course, I must retain a bit of rationale, knowing full well that adding 40 books would enlarge my Books to be Read pile so out of control it would probably never reduce to manageable levels within my lifetime. So I heave a slow sigh and resign myself to only buying an occasional one of Perrin’s recommendations. But even so, reading his delightful essays are a pleasure in themselves. I heartily recommend A Reader’s Delight to everybody in love with books, but especially to those of you able to resist temptation and not begin a lifelong search trying to obtain all 40 wonderful books. It might be easier to seek the Holy Grail instead.


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