The Greatest Books You’ll Never Read by Professor Bernard Richards, Octopus Books, 256 pages, $20 paperback. When an author insists on being known on his book’s cover as “Professor” Puf-n-Stuff, we might have every right to suspect the contents inside to be closer to a Monty Python parody than a real book.
Strictly speaking, of course, this isn’t a “real book” at all, it’s a lavishly illustrated book-length amplified list of major author projects that never actually materialized in completed form between covers. Considering the enormous American attention in the past eight days to Harper’s publication of a manuscript by Harper Lee, the idea of 256 pages of entries on literary works we might have coveted but which were lost through time and fate is fascinating.
We’ve seen the fragments that Lee’s friend Truman Capote wanted to complete and call “Answered Prayers.” The question is, when Professor Richards tells us about an abandoned Lee manuscript called “The Long Goodbye” which she hoped would make her “the Jane Austen of South Alabama,” is she talking about the book the world is now seeing and has been reading about for the past eight days? How about John Updike’s “Willow” which Updike abandoned at Harvard in 1951 after writing two thirds of it? Could anyone stand to read it now?
Hunter S. Thompson wrote 30 pages of a novel to be called “Prince Jellyfish”, says Richards, but, well, Hunter Thompson was Hunter Thompson and that’s as far as it got, though Richards speculates that there may still be a manuscript of the book somewhere that someone might find by chance. His list of the literary misbegotten begins “pre-1750” with that great “unfinished” classic, the Aeneid, and continues through Shakespeare’s “Cardenio” supposedly from a story in Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Maria: or the Wrongs of Woman,” Jane Austen’s “Sandition,” Stendahl’s “Lucien Leuwen,” Melville’s “The Isle of the Cross,” Saul Bellow’s “The Crab and the Butterfly,” Sylvia Plath’s complete “Journals,” Stephen King’s “The House on Value Street,” a whole literary cabinet of the lost and abandoned and spurned. Fascinating.
– Jeff Simon