Tuesday, June 07, 2016

the lost classics

There is a subculture of neglected or lost books, of which I am a member. I am a frequent visitor at the neglected books blog, which keeps lists put out at various times by journals like Anteaus and American Scholar. Typically, these lists are compiled from the responses of authors who are asked to name a book that deserves more recognition.
While I was travelling back from Paris a couple of days ago, I read a book, Lost Classics, which consisted of little essays extolling neglected books, lost books, childhood favorites, and the like. The essays were built on the format of the personal essay, the dominant form in our time. I’m not against personal essays, but I do find that context sorta gets whacked in favor of a rather uncritical self report.
I thought, naturally, about what I’d include in a list. And then I thought I’d write my own little essays about writers who have not gotten a fair shake in the American culture I know.
But before I do that: what does it mean, in a book’s career, to be lost? Or, more broadly, to be rediscovered?
The rediscovery of, for instance, the Bible during the 16th and 17th century was not an event of merely antiquarian interest, but was of vast importance to the  formation of a literate public, and to the formation of pre-modern culture. It was not the only cause of the religious wars, but it played a very important role in them. The New Model Army of Cromwell may have been the first to supply its soldiers with books – specifically, the Soldier’s Pocket Bible.
The Renaissance is also inextricably tied to the “new learning”. Although historians now tend to dissolve the Renaissance into an epiphenomenon or a retrospective illusion about the 14th and 15th century, I am true to my education and like to think of Gemistos Plethon sailing from Byzantium to Italy with a boatload of manuscripts in 1438. This is the Gemistos celebrated in Pound’s Cantos. Whoever the agent,it seems that there was a rage for manuscripts in Florence in the early fifteenth century, and that Plato was finally released into the European mainstream by translators and commentors like Ficino. Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato is a bit too magisterial – Plato was teleported into Europe in various stages. Still, Whitehead’s remark is a good measure for scaling the importance, in the posthumous life of an author, of rediscovery.
That said, I’m going to list a few of my discoveries.

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