Over dinner one night, apparently, the writers of Who the Hell is Pansy O’Hara? (Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy) began discussing popular books and the paths taken to their publication – and this evolved into a book about books: as the subtitle says, “The Fascinating Stories Behind 50 of the Best-Loved Books”. It’s a great idea, which is why I ordered the book from paperbackswap – there have to be hundreds of stories out there about the trials and tribulations and mutations and evolutions of hundreds of books.
Unfortunately … three things. First, some of the writing was awful. Toward the end an essay contained two glaring typos on one two-page spread: “extracurricula activities” and a line about how someone “towed the line” (what kind of gear does it take to tow a line?). More frequently, there were sentences that ran along the lines of: “The youngest of seven children, the family moved to London that year…” That would be a case of misplaced modifier, I believe, with some comma splice thrown in? I can spot ’em, but I can’t name ’em. It happened several times, though, and was a bit sad. I have a feeling one of the two authors wrote some entries and the other handled the rest, because some were fine, while others had iffy moments.
Secondly is that even with the minimal knowledge I had of a few of the writers, I knew most of what was considered the Fascinating Story of their lives; there was very little groundbreaking information here. For writers like Austen and Dickens and Tolkien, for three, this was a rehash of well-known anecdotes. I thought it was fairly common knowledge that A.A. Milne didn’t write Pooh for his son, and that Christopher Milne hated the fame that came to him because of his namesake and the silly old bear. And for Stephen King, I wonder if Bond and Sheedy looked any further than On Writing…
The third thing is that apparently, rather than taking fifty books with fascinating stories behind them, they came up with a list of fifty of the most popular books ever, internationally, and determined that for each they would fill five pages. For some, like Jackie Collins (Jackie Collins!), what they used to fill the five rattled a bit, and I for one found it ridiculous that “Valley of the Dolls” was included in a list that highlighted Oliver Twist and The Grapes of Wrath and War and Peace… “Best-Loved”, though, was the adjective in the title, not “Good” or “Respected”, so … Okay. (But … really? “Valley of the Dolls” is beloved? And The Origin of Species is well-respected, but – one of the best-loved books in the world? And the dictionary? And may Stephen Hawking forgive me, A Brief History of Time? From my understanding, BHofT holds a record as the simultaneously most-bought and least-read book ever. I tried; I couldn’t do it.
And seriously? Who actually “loves” Lord of the Flies? I was forced to read it in high school; a great many people have to read it in high school. I can’t imagine loving it.
The result of the choice made to pick the fifty and then work to fill an entry spot on each makes for a very uneven read, definitely not meant for reading straight through as I did. I think the book I was expecting is what I said above, the biographies of fifty books. The titular entry was what I was looking for: I enjoyed reading about the roots of Gone With the Wind, and about the process involved in Margaret Mitchell’s writing: putting each chapter into an envelope, tucking notes into the relevant envelopes as changes occurred to her or revisions needed to be made, Mitchell’s hesitatancy about being an author. I like the tidbit that the heroine’s name changed from Pansy to Scarlett because the latter suited her “fiery personality” better. That was fun.
The pages devoted to The Hobbit, though, (for example) weren’t really so much to the point, and this is why a different approach might have been better – again, either fifty books with discrete interesting backgrounds, or brief overviews of fifty beloved writers. The Hobbit entry talked about Tolkien’s childhood, his war experiences and his romance with Edith Bratt, and of course the famous anecdote that on coming upon a blank page in a student’s test booklet JRRT wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit” without really knowing why … and then talks about how the film trilogy of LotR made millions and won awards and set records. Which has little to do with the book The Hobbit. Peter Jackson shouldn’t have even come into any discussion of The Hobbit written longer ago than late 2010. He just shouldn’t.
Dickens’s entry is similar; the title chosen for the book is Oliver Twist, but the section is an overview of his life and views – a few things I didn’t know or had forgotten, and relevant to Oliver Twist, but also relevant to just about everything Dickens wrote. Huckleberry Finn focuses on Mark Twain with a dollop of how Huck became what it is. The entry on Pride and Prejudice spends at least as much time talking about Sense and Sensibility. These entries could probably have been a good deal shorter, if they stuck to the premise, but except in the cases of authors like Harper Lee with the one book much of a person’s work is inevitably intertwined.
On the whole, it was a quick read, and interesting – and as a quick read it was interesting to see how often the theme “although [ ] was very bright, s/he was an indifferent student at best” was repeated – almost every author addressed fit that description. It’s a nice encyclopedia, and I can’t say I didn’t learn from it, but I wish it had been what I expected. I mean, The Hobbit seems to have been included because it sold more copies than The Lord of the Rings – but LotR, to my mind, has a more fascinating back story. The student’s test story is fun – but I think the tale that Strider, who is in the finished work the uncrowned king of Gondor, was originally envisioned to be a hobbit whose feet were mangled by orcs, after which he wore wooden clogs, leading to the nickname Trotter – I think that makes for a better story. And knowing that Edith was Tolkien’s Luthien means a great deal to me, and adds depth to the history of the book. It had its moments, but wasn’t a keeper.