Once upon a time, Dr. Demento started his program with a deeply felt warning about the material he was featuring that week. Elvis Presley was a true monarch in the world of twentieth century music, an icon, a legend. But it had to be admitted that Elvis had recorded some pretty awful songs, and these were what Dr. D wanted to remind his listeners about.
The world of books is like that, too. As we go through this massive and wonderful collection someone gave us at the end of January, we are reminded that there are many fine authors who simply wrote Too Many Books.
H.G. Wells, for example, lived nearly 80 years, and wrote for most of that. He started with some classics in the world of fantasy and science fiction: The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The War of the Worlds, the Invisible Man. He wrote novels of low class life, at least one of which, Kipps, was turned into a popular musical (Half a Sixpence.) He came up with the monumental, and monumentally controversial, Outline of History.
And does anyone bring first editions of these books to the Book Fair? No: we get those endless reprints of every one of them (including, as noted before, Orson Welles’s annotated copy of the Outline of History.) And we get, um, his slightly less classic novels: Mr. Britling Sees It Through, The World of William Clissold, and Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island. These are NOT going to get us headlines in the Sunday Books section of the Tribune.
We get a copy or two every year of The Cyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge, a compendium of information cribbed from textbooks and reference books that went on to be a best seller in several languages. It is worth very little, though it was an early bestseller by Arthur Koestler, who, when he was not eluding pursuit and execution, wrote his classic anti-totalitarian novel Darkness at Noon, a Must-Read for decades. A man of wide interests, he wrote prolifically in the areas of politics, the paranormal, science, and anything else he thought interesting. What we get at the Book Fair, though, are the interesting but not especially collectible Case of the Midwife Toad, The Gladiators (a novel about Spartacus), The Lotus and the Robot, or any one of dozens of his other books of travels or essays.
C.S. Lewis wrote classic children’s books (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and its sequels), an amazing and bizarre science fiction trilogy (starting with Out of the Silent Planet), groundbreaking works on English literature (proposing a theory that the Renaissance was largely irrelevant in England), and, of course, classic examinations of Christianity (The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, and his autobiography, Surprised By Joy.) He is contrasted with his friend and fellow author, J.R.R. Tolkien by one critic who stated flatly that Lewis had written too many books and Tolkien not enough. He wrote so many essays and gave so many lectures which could be collected or expanded that books flowed freely from the presses: we get the paperback reprints of those. (Also, like Tolkien, his papers have been mined for material that never found its way between the pages if books, so more are coming out all the time.)
There is something to be said for these writers, and others like them. If you enjoy their style and their choice of subjects, you WANT there always to be one more book you haven’t read, even if maybe it isn’t a top flight work. And there is always a chance that one of the books the critics find second rate will turn out to be your favorite. The author who spends a lifetime writing One Great Book and lets it go at that leaves nowhere for you to go.
And (sigh) I suppose I’ll have better profits selling all those three dollar second rate books by Wells than waiting around for someone to pay fifteen thousand dollars for a first edition of The Time Machine. You could give me one anyhow, just so I could find out for sure.