By Allen Michie
This slim volume is the ideal antidote to something like Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon and the other beefy works that lay out The Official Reading List For All Educated Persons.
B-Side Books: Essays on Forgotten Favorites (Edited by John Plotz). Columbia University Press, 280 pages, $26.
The title of this assemblage of essays recognizes that your book collection is probably a lot like your record collection. (Translation for Millennials: your Kindle downloads are a lot like your Spotify playlists.) You own some classics, garbage that you like anyway, neglected stuff you’re supposed to have, some much-loved things you’re preserved from childhood, and — importantly — you have some items you’ve come across that few others seem to know about.
I have given up trying to get anyone to agree that the prog rock album Remember the Future by the German band Nektar is genius. Attempts to convince others that John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is actually a hip pre-postmodern psychedelic masterpiece are inevitably greeted by raised eyebrows and a patronizing “that’s nice.” Your choices for the underappreciated may be very different (seriously though, check out Nektar and Bunyan, preferably simultaneously). Who we are is shaped by what we love, and what we love is shaped by who we are.
This is the premise that drives B-Side Books, a fine collection of short essays on books you may have never heard about but are nonetheless worthy of your limited reading time. If you have some 45 RPM records (and if you don’t, you need some!), you know that there are often overlooked B-sides that are as good as or better than the hit songs on the A-side. When you make a great B-side discovery, there’s a strong urge to tell someone about it. The same impulse, editor John Plotz argues, is true of books: “These B-Sides embody the companionship we find in words and ideas beyond the classroom and library and book group. Every book is its own desert island: we read, as we live, alone. Yet inside the cocoon created by the favorite chair or the nighttime ritual, readers want both privacy and communication. Solitude sometimes loves company.”
B-Side Books: Essays on Forgotten Favorites assembles 40 commentators, and each writes a brief (approx. 4-10 pages) summary and appreciation of an overlooked book. The mix of writers is impressive: it includes art historians, a Slavic-language expert, novelists from several nations, a science historian, an anthropologist, a gender historian, a religious studies professor, and essayists. There is a plurality of lit-crit academics (from several continents, and not just full professors), but that’s all right. This is what they do for a living — convince other people to explore and love books that have been (unfairly) pushed to the margins.
This slim volume is the ideal antidote to something like Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon and the other beefy works that lay out The Official Reading List For All Educated Persons. Bloom copped to some of his own guilty pleasures in his final work, and here we learn the B-side favorites of other distinguished writers such as Stephanie Burt, Caleb Crain, Merve Emre, Ursula K. Le Guin, Toril Moi, Carlo Rotella, and Namwali Serpell. One could quibble that a few of the selections, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (essay by Seeta Chaganti), Mythology by Edith Hamilton (essay by Kathryn Lofton), and The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay (essay by Yoon Sun Lee) aren’t really B-sides. They are probably cross-listed somewhere in Bloom’s books. But the fresh perspectives here give them a much-needed contemporary boost. You may have read some of the others because the emphasis is on discovery, not total obscurity.
The book is thoughtfully arranged by theme, not by genre, nation, identity, or time period. Part I, “Childhood: Through a Glass Darkly” features works on a boy prodigy in search of a father figure, a coming-of-age story of a Black girl in Brooklyn, a girl’s drive to experience wild nature, and a poetic memoir of a Pittsburgh childhood. The most fun, however, is Caleb Crain’s essay on The Young Visitors, written by Daisy Ashford when she was just nine years old. Crain takes her seriously as a writer, down to her occasional phonetic spelling, and by doing so makes a convincing case for her distinctive brilliance and cutting humor. Ashford sees the world as only a preteen can: “A silly world … a world where everyone is either preening themselves on their status or scheming to acquire more of it; a world where no one seems to be interested enough in other people, in and for themselves, to be capable of receiving any serious harm at their hands. The satire is accordingly ruthless.”
Part two is “Other Worlds,” books that are “tickets to elsewhere, reminders that things can be far different from what surrounds us now.” The section opens with Seeta Changati’s reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the Trump era (“The poem proceeds to suggest that once you shrug off shame, your relationship to it is forever tenuous”). Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner is a fun finding — as Ivan Kreilkamp puts it, “Warner chronicles a self-effacing English spinster’s gradual realization that, far from being a forgotten superfluity in the modern marriage market, she is actually a witch in league with Satan. It is as if Virginia Woolf had rewritten Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story ‘Young Goodman Brown,’ complete with afternoon teas and a feckless nephew at Oxford.” Props also to Emily Hyde, who struggles and mostly succeeds in avoiding academic jargon in a postcolonialist reading of Other Leopards by Carribean author Denis Williams.
Best of all in this section is Paul Saint-Amour’s essay on Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, a 1980 “postapocalyptic bildungsroman set three millennia after a nuclear war,” a feast of imaginative sociology and sparkling linguistic invention. Hoban imagines “how English might look and work after a near-total social collapse and 3,000 years of linguistic drift”: “I appreciated how a feeling of releaf carried with it a vision of the blasted world regreening; how to breave the poisoned air was also to experience bereavement with each brief breath; how keeping a red cord instead of a record made writing both a rubric and an umbilicus.”
Part three spotlights the genre “Comedy.” It gets off to a strong start with Yoon Sun Lee’s essay on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which will make you wish you could attend her classes at Wellesley. Maud Ellmann makes the striking choice of Lady Into Fox by David Garnett, a mysterious little animal metamorphosis fable for adults, about a man whose wife turns into a fox: “In this marital contest, both spouses seem to be striving to convert each other to their mode of being, as if they were confusing kin with kind…. Lady Into Fox invites allegorical interpretation — but also destabilizes any one-to-one correspondence between symbol and meaning.” (Teachers take note if you’re looking for a fresh new short text to spark some classroom discussion.)
Part four is “Battle and Strife”: “Beware books that draw bright clear lines across its muddy fields — conversely, look out for the ones that manage to bring its awful untidiness onto the page.” Isabel Hofmeyer’s essay on The House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera is a powerful entry about the “wreckages of utopia” in African nations. Marechera’s novella and accompanying stories, written while the author was in exile in the comfort and security of Oxford, describe African citizens who “find themselves making their lives on ideological as well as actual garbage dumps.” Steven Biel writes effectively about Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, a 1979 Vietnam War novel, balancing quotations from the text with gripping assessments. Ben Fountain’s essay on A Flag for Sunrise, “a violent, God-haunted intrigue set in the fictional Central American country of Tecan, circa 1977” by Robert Stone, is a reminder that not all B-Side essays are modeled on cheerful Goodreads recommendations: “We need writers like Stone to keep shocking us into consciousness, and that’s the achievement of his merciless novel. Break your heart, this book. Leave you wrung out and gutted, as dazed as an earthbound angel dragging your mangled wings in the dirt, wind-sheared and shredded by American contrarieties.”
Part five is “Home Fires.” As Plotz writes, “Home: when you go there, they have to let you in. Only, then what happens?” Many readers may think of Ursula K. Le Guin as the author of epic, otherworldly science fiction. But she toasts simple pleasures in John Galt’s Annals of the Parish, a chronicle of a small town in Ayrshire, Scotland, from 1760 to 1810. The narrator “will not, he cannot, mislead you. He is transparent. He is as honest as the day is long and as naïve as a man can be. I can best describe him as an innocent heart.” B-side works like Annals of the Parish may have no small influence, as unlikely as that may seem, on such futuristic and morally complex writers as Le Guin.
Sharon Marcus brings out another benefit of reading B-side books: uncovering the neglected dimensions of authors we think we may know. Shirley Jackson is usually associated with the horrors of “The Lottery” or her gothic novels, such as The Haunting of Hill House. Who knew she wrote a farce? Marcus compares Jackson’s Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons to Erma Bombeck: the vignettes “tell the story of a New York City wife and mother transplanted to rural Vermont, where she contends with rambunctious children, strong-willed pets, and uncooperative household objects.”
Part six is “Mysteries and Trials,” which stretches beyond the traditional mystery genre to include works such as the fascinating nonfiction diaries of Lady Anne Clifford, “an extraordinary seventeenth-century woman who survived four monarchs, two husbands, one civil war, and a nearly forty-year legal battle before inheriting one of the greatest properties in England.” There’s also a spy thriller on the high seas from 1903 (The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers), the inevitable mystery on a train (Stamboul Train by Graham Greene), and a disturbing and innovative gothic novel about post-partum sleeplessness (The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin).
Part seven brings us on “Journeys of the Spirit,” which opens up the genres to poetry, self-help books, spiritual autobiography, and even a western (or, better, an “anti-western” novel, as Plotz argues for John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing). Theo Davis makes Satomi Myōdō’s Journey in Search of the Way sound irresistible: “As spiritual autobiographies go, Journey in Search of the Way is a bit of a romp. Written in 1956, Satomi Myōdō’s account of the fits and starts of her Buddhist practice weaves her awakening together with her adventures as a single mother, student, actress and miko (shamaness).” I Remember by artist and poet Joe Brainard is another excellent choice. Arthur H. Miller captures Brainard’s multifarious style in focused phrases that wisely don’t attempt to neaten this collagist into a unified whole: “Because he was undefended and open to being seen, he was open to seeing; moments stuck to him like burrs stick to your clothes as you cross a field.”
B-Side Books is a work in progress. The series continues as a recurring feature on the Public Books website, where some of these essays first appeared. It’s a source of continuing inspiration if you want to step out of your reading rut or burst your literary bubble. What would happen if you encountered Something Completely Different? There is no shortage of websites and algorithmic engines eager to recommend one of the millions (billions?) of existing obtainable books you should read next. B-Side Books is a helpful and thoroughly enjoyable curated guide, perfect for quick bedside consumption. The volume will keep your reading list full for years to come, or it can simply serve as a reminder to be grateful for literature’s fertile nooks and crannies.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, TX. He is something of an expert on the B-side of life, being a collector of 45 RPM records, an English literature teacher who has enthusiastically assigned many obscure texts, and a middle-aged person over 50 years old.