Sickbed Reading

Indulge me a bit if you will. I’ve been sick for the past week or more, and spent several days doing little more than sleeping, reading, and watching the Addams Family. I’ve had to go without solid food, caffeine, or alcohol, thus without, some might say, necessary accouterments of civilized life. To make up for that, I read some short stories and reflected upon popular versus scholarly editions.

Lately I’ve been reading Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, and M.R. James. Most of my fiction reading is confined to vacation time and now sick time, when I want my brain to relax. That may sound like I think fiction is a lesser read, but it’s probably my reaction to several years spent studying English literature. I read more widely for fun than I did in college, but I don’t take literature as seriously as an academic subject. It took a long time before I could read fiction or poetry without trying to find something clever to say about it or applying some critical theory to it.

It’s also rare that I find anything I like. My favorite literary genre is the essay, and there’s something I find very satisfying about a good writer exploring a small subject in a thoughtful way. For popular fiction, I prefer P.G. Wodehouse and the British detective novelists of the thirties and forties (Nicholas Blake, Naigo Marsh, etc), but usually I return to the same writers again and again, especially Henry James. However, when I noticed recently that the Library of America had given its imprimatur to Dick and Lovecraft, I thought I would give them a try. To save my valuable reading time, I usually wait for authors to die and for a cultural movement to establish them before I bother reading them, and the Library of America does a great job of this usually. (I’m still hoping they publish an edition of Robert Benchley and pay me to edit it.) I’ve been an M.R. James fan for years, and I recently bought the Penguin 2-volume complete short stories of M.R. James, annotated by S.T. Joshi. They arrived just in time for sickbed reading.

With Dick, I actually began with Selected Stories, the Pantheon volume edited by Jeremy Lethem. As the the stories themselves, I thought they were okay. I don’t know how they rank as science fiction, since they might be the only science fiction I’ve ever read, but they were entertaining and thoughtful for the most part. The non-literary thing that struck me most about the stories is how bad Dick was at predicting the future. He has characters hop from their interplan rocket ships and sit down to typewriters. The future world of some stories has a victorious Soviet Union and lifelike robots, but no personal computers. This gave me another sort of pleasure, as I compared what by now is the present of some of these stories to the world around us. The unvirtual materiality of Dick’s vision interested me in a way I wouldn’t have expected. But this led to scholarly disappointment. I then wanted to know when these stories were published, preferably with dates of composition as well. Obviously these were Cold War-era stories, but the “about the texts” page was woefully inadequate, and there were no notes. I was viewing Dick as a writer who needed to be historicized, and Lethem let me down.

Contrast the LoA Lovecraft edition. All the LoA books are beautifully bound and printed, joys to hold and read, and all the ones I have are annotated more or less heavily. (The Henry James set is almost complete with 14 volumes so far. The five volumes of short stories make great Christmas gifts.) The Lovecraft edition was no exception, though the editor, Peter Straub, relied upon both the texts and the notes that S.T. Joshi had provided in three other editions of Lovecraft’s work that he edited. It makes one wonder why Joshi wasn’t asked to edit this. Straub may be more famous, but would that be relevant for someone buying the LoA edition? I wonder. Still, it had the chronology of the author, notes on the texts, and annotations I’ve come to expect. I didn’t rely on them much, expect to figure out how “Cthulhu” might be pronounced, but some were interesting to read, and they let me date the story accordingly. This isn’t as important for Lovecraft, since he seemed to be deliberately archaic, anyway. If you read both Dick and Lovecraft in tandem, you would probably be struck by the dichotomy of styles. Dick’s prose is spare and lean and he’s often trying to understand what it is to be human. Lovecraft never met an adverb he didn’t like, or a foreigner he did. He certainly can evoke a mood of horror, but I’ve never read anyone so incapable of empathy. Still, the edition was perfect.

Then comes the James edition annotated by Joshi. This would seem to be my sort of edition, heavily annotated, semi-scholarly introductions with bibliography, appendices with juvenilia. But what I found instead was that the scholarly apparatus crushed the delicate stories. The introductions strained to be scholarly, but had little to work with. The annotations provided historical tidbits on people and places real and fictitious, but none of this helped illuminate the stories for me at all. Joshi seems to have made a career of editing and writing about the better popular fiction of the twentieth century, and I’m not maligning his work. It just seemed so unnecessary in this case. Unlike Dick, where I wanted to place the stories in their historical context because of the odd future expectations, and unlike Lovecraft, where some explanation of broader themes that apparently evolve in scattered works help illuminate slightly the stories, the James scholarly apparatus added nothing. The stories stood by themselves. Except for a couple of added stories, my old Wordsworth Classics M.R. James Collected Ghost Stories (available used for $1.99) was just as good.

Maybe I’m being uncharitable to both Lethem and Joshi, though. I probably shouldn’t have been evaluating scholarly editions on an empty stomach.