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  • Writer's pictureMike O'Driscoll

Fifty Forgotten Books

I've been reading this recent book by R.B. Russell, founder and co-owner of the indpendent publisher Tartarus Press. It's a fascinating series of discussions of books that, in the author's opinion, have been largely forgotten by the mainstream. The emphasis is on weird fiction and fantasia, though there are some more fringe choices--a kind of biography of the Fall's Mark E Smith, constructed through a series of interviews with surviving band members--and a book that primarily features writing on the natural world. Some of the books might not be considered "forgotten", particuarly works by Arthur Machen and Thomas Tryon, and at least two have been repackaged as Penguin Modern Classics. As enjoyable as Russell's thoughts on his chosen texts were, what I found most resonant in the book, were his musings on the peculiarities of book collectors, their passions and foibles, as well as what he has to say about spending time in favourite second hand bookshops. Over the course of the book, we learn alot about Russell's own evolving tastes as a reader, and about the relationships he forged with other individuals encountered in bookshops, at conventions, and through his involvement with organisations such as The Friends of Arthur Machen.

Even for those unfamiliar with the 50 titles chosen by Russell--and I have to confess that while I had heard of and read other works by nearly half the authors, I haven't read a single title he lists--there a great deal of pleasure to be had in reading his musings on the life of a bibliophile. It got me thinking about my own book collecting, prompting memories of happy time spent in The Fantasy Centre on Holloway Road in north London, Corran Books in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, and two second hand venues here in Swansea - one on St Helen's Road that, if my memory is still functioning properly, took up three floors of a terraced building, but which never seemed to have a name. I bought dozens of books there, though the owner was a bit of a grump, especially in his refusal to barter or accept anything less than the price he had pencilled in on the inside cover, even when buying in bulk. I remember being particuarly pissed off when I took 10 books up to the counter and offered him £15 for the lot, as against the £20 sum they totalled. I might have walked out had they not included 2 volumes of the Orbit Science Fiction Yearbook, and a copy of Theordore Sturgeon's To Here and the Easel--and another large stall in Swansea's Quadrant Market, that always had an interesting collection of second hand horror, crime and SF paperbacks, many of them quite unsual or hard to find titles.

Russell's book also prompted me to consider how my own reading habits have developed over the course of my life, from when I first started reading comics like the Beano and the Dandy as a young child. What is it, I wondered, that makes one person an avid, lifelong reader, while another perhaps occasionally dips into a work of fiction, or maybe doesn't read fiction at all? What are the reading choices we make--or maybe, that are made for us--as a child, that inspire that lifelong passion for literature? Looking back and trying to recall the earliest works I read, I'm inspired to write about the process of 'becoming' a reader. I've started making a few notes and hopefully, over the next few weeks, as my thoughts coalesce, I will share them with you in this blog.

My review of Fifty Forgotten Books will appear soon at Interzone Digital

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