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Split lit

A look at masterworks that vanished, were destroyed, or never came to fruition, from Aristophanes to Austen

The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read
By Stuart Kelly
Random House, 338 pp., $24.95

When we think of literature in the classroom sense we tend to think in Rushmore terms -- canonized eminences taking their places in a sequence of movements, this followed by that followed by this, the whole business naturally having been arrived at retrospectively in the academy. And until some good biography sets us straight, we imagine the lives of authors mainly as capsule chronologies, or mythologies, of greatness and achievement: Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Pope, Goethe, Coleridge, Byron, right down to Eliot, Pound, and Plath. Yes, of course we know that Coleridge had some problems with addiction, and Pound made those vile anti-Semitic broadcasts from Italy during the war. But even so, the cult of the singular vision and the great work remains solidly in place, weathering the assaults of theory and trumping all special-case considerations; it remains the template concept of liberal education.

What a different kind of correction it is, then, to read through Stuart Kelly's ''The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read," which is, as the breath-stretching title suggests, a compendium of all that never was -- of works conceived and abandoned, completed and lost, a kind of shadow-play of historical what-ifs.

Kelly, educated in England and now living in Scotland, styles himself as a bookish amateur, a lore-gatherer compelled mainly by curiosity. He reflects on his obsession in his introduction, recounting how as a child he was haunted by the demon of completeness, at one point having to have all of the Agatha Christie paperbacks, and then being tormented by the question of what to do when the books were reissued with new covers. Some will relate to this instantly; others won't. For Kelly it led into the realm of what he calls ''Literature -- with a capital L." He writes of later hoarding the Penguin Classics of Hellenic drama, and then receiving what might be called the instigating shock: ''I was under the impression that I had just bought all of Greek drama, yet the prefaces and commentaries doomfully tolled otherwise: Aeschylus, whose seven plays I was holding, had actually written eighty; there should have been thirty-three volumes of Sophocles, not a mere brace . . . and so on."

Sometimes the best way to cope with a loss, or lack, is to confront it, which is exactly what Kelly has done: He has gone in pursuit of the lore of what does not exist. Not as a scholar -- though he has a scholar's instinct for the telling detail and the implication of an odd fact -- but as a personable, opinionated, wide-ranging amateur. ''The Book of Lost Books" navigates with fluent, synoptic ease across the broad topography of literature, beginning with the Greeks and the biblical Yahwist, taking in the Romans, the amply documented English tradition, then the Europeans, extending himself all the way down to a handful of moderns from the previous century.

Stories and legends are the meat of Kelly's book. Take the case of Aeschylus and the Ptolemys. It was Ptolemy I who traveled the known world with Alexander the Great, and later ruled Egypt, building there the monumental Alexandrian library. His grandson, Ptolemy III, devoted to the great institution, discovered ''an anomaly of unthinkable proportions" -- the lack of a complete text of the master Greek dramatist. The only extant version, in scrolls, was in Athens, so Ptolemy III arranged to borrow the text for copying purposes, leaving as collateral the staggering sum of 15 talents. A small amount to sacrifice, though, for what was known to be ''a unicum, a nonpareil, a one and only." The decision was then made to keep the scrolls, and the world's only complete Aeschylus reposed in the Alexandrian library for centuries -- a magnet for scholars -- until at last in AD 640 the caliph decreed any texts not extolling the word of God either blasphemous or superfluous and commanded the library be burned. Innumerable plays of which we have only the titles simply disappeared.

Or else we might consider the life story of Mrs. Agatha Robertson, deemed by Herman Melville and, later, his then-friend Nathaniel Hawthorne to be a subject worthy of extended novelistic treatment. Hawthorne tried first, gave it up, urging Melville to do the job. Melville tells his friend that ''so far as in me lies, I shall endeavor to do justice to so interesting a story of reality." For whatever reason, it was a work fated not to be: The fantasy resisted their determined assaults.

Then there are the mind-changers, Chaucer and Gogol among them, who in discovering a later-life piety turned against the work of their youth -- Chaucer less effectually than the Russian master, who successfully burned Part 2 of his ''Dead Souls," a labor that had cost him five years' effort. Kafka, meanwhile, acted out of combined self-loathing and a belief that his books were ultimately acts of violence, meant to hurt others. He commanded his friend Max Brod to burn his manuscripts, but Brod betrayed his promise in the interests of posterity.

Kelly reports, too, how the Harvard College Class of 1910 Quindecennial Report cites among the publications of alumnus T. S. Eliot an item called ''Literature and Export Trade," which Eliot later declared apocryphal, whereupon as our author observes: ''If Literature and Export Trade had examined how the differing literary markets in America and Britain operated, or how the importation of experimental foreign literature influenced writers in a way that then had an impact back onto the original culture, it would have been intriguing." Indeed, I agree, but I can't shake the sense that Kelly has his tongue somewhere deep in his cheek.

But this is quibbling. ''The Book of Lost Books" is stylish and informative, a pleasure to read from page to page. Beyond the immediate interest of the gathered lore, it offers a necessary counter to the grim accounting of literary encyclopedias, in which published works are seen to issue forth in bright and pompous array. Kelly at once desanctifies the author and reanimates history, putting doubt, remorse, vanity, skulduggery, opportunism, cowardice, venality, and a host of other familiar human traits into the picture. But there is a paradox about doing so, for to contemplate the botches and accidents in such concentration is to arrive at a refreshed appreciation of the works that have survived -- all this emphasis on chance and fragility also turns our focus to the bounty of endurance.

Sven Birkerts edits the journal Agni at Boston University.

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