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the Complete Review
the complete review - anthology



The Book of Prefaces

by
Alasdair Gray


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Book of Prefaces



Title: The Book of Prefaces
Author: Alasdair Gray
Genre: Anthology
Written: (2000)
Length: 640 pages
Availability: The Book of Prefaces - US
The Book of Prefaces - UK
The Book of Prefaces - Canada
  • A Short History of Literary Thought in Words by Great Writers Of Four Nations From the 7th Century To The 20th Century
  • Edited & Glossed by Alasdair Gray Mainly
  • Contributors include James Kelman, A.L.Kennedy, Janice Galloway, and Roger Scruton.

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Our Assessment:

A : a beautiful book, an essential volume for anyone interested in English-language literature and history

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 3/2003 Benjamin Schwarz
Daily Telegraph B- 9/5/2000 Noel Malcolm
The Guardian A 20/5/2000 Ian Sansom
The Guardian . 9/11/2002 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent A 18/6/2000 Christopher Wood
London Rev. of Books . 5/10/2000 William Gass
The Observer A 21/5/2000 Adam Mars-Jones
The Scotsman A 13/5/2000 Catherine Lockerbie
The Spectator . 20/5/2000 Frank Kermode
Sunday Telegraph A 27/5/2000 Andrew O'Hagan
The Times A 11/5/2000 Peter Ackroyd
TLS . 11/8/2000 Michael Kerrigan


  Review Consensus:

  Almost all agree: an important book, beautifully crafted, cleverly done. Almost all think Gray has produced a marvelous though admittedly quirky work.

  Note that as of early 2002, going on two years after its American publication, The Book of Prefaces had unaccountably still not yet been reviewed by any major (and very few minor) US publications, a sad reflection of the state of literary affairs in the US.

  From the Reviews:
  • "This book is delightful, amusing, and instructive." - Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "At his best, Gray is lively, direct and enthusiastic. (...) Often, however, the lightness turns into an affected mateyness, while the enthusiasm becomes tub-thumpingly didactic." - Noel Malcolm, Daily Telegraph

  • "Like all his other books, The Book of Prefaces is distinguished from the ordinary. It has almost nothing in common with any book written by any living author. (...) It is egalitarian in ambition and aristocratic in execution. It should be bought and fondled by anyone who is tired of of the tasteless swill, the cheap hype, the hustling, the glad-handing, the chit-chat, the back-scratching, second-guessing groupthink that sometimes goes by the name of Contemporary British Literature." - Ian Sansom, The Guardian

  • "Gray has supplied marginal glosses in red which, over the course of his book, comprise a succinct political and literary history of these islands. These brief essays are quirky, adept and useful; his parallel translations of early English are more than competent, and send you back over the page to the originals with confidence." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "The glosses, although authored by some 30 hands, have the authentic Gray touch (...). They are breezy, lucid, easily understood and thoroughly tendentious (...). They display certain typographic eccentricities (...) and typify the whimsicality which Gray's fans love, and his detractors presumably don't." - Christopher Wood, The Independent

  • "Font sizes change like evil purposes; more images (of those who have volunteered glosses and were paid in portraits) clog the rear, where there's a postscript and an index as well. Dates in very large type fix each entry in its time, and control their order, so that were a reader to read this collection straight through (no one expects it, and for dipping into or sipping from this volume, hotels and bathrooms are the venues suggested) they might experience the rich course of English prose from nowhere to now, and also profit from the enterprise by observing changes in the manners and morals of our authors, in their plights and perilous status, from hence to thence." - William Gass, London Review of Books

  • "(T)his is anything but a dour book, being multiply suffused with love and humour. Gray responds to fancy effects without wholly respecting them, and his loyalty is all to robustness and clarity, to writing with a connection to ordinary talk." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "(S)o compendious and quirky and filling and fulfilling is this anthology that it does, in fact, satisfy all manner of intellectual appetites. (...) At every turn, Gray is inclusive, radical, embracing, pouncing cunningly on origins and connections. (...) The book itself is a thing of solid and physical beauty, filled with gorgeous typescript and graphics. There is something energetically improving about it all." - Catherine Lockerbie, The Scotsman

  • "This book is both weird and wonderful, as totally sui generis as The Anatomy of Melancholy. (...) The book, on the stocks for years and years, grew and grew. Gray's final contribution is an errata slip that could itself stand some expansion, but there are few signs of fatigue and many of a defiant septentrional energy." - Frank Kermode, The Spectator

  • "The book is beautiful and mad; not a corner of any page is unmarked by Grayís baroque imagination. (...) (It) is a sort of illuminated manuscript, a political tract, a literary diorama, a fervent prayer to the living power of words, an episodic chastisement, a Blakean peepshow, a compendium of baby-talk, an intellectual paradise and an old-fashioned appraisal of what makes good stuff good. But most of all it is a species of autobiography, a map of a singular manís reading life. (...) A house in Britain that does not have a copy of this book is a house bereft: it will afford you great wisdom in the afternoon and many an enlightened smile after dark." - Andrew OíHagan, Sunday Telegraph

  • "One of the virtues of Alasdair Gray's anthology lies in his willingness to transcribe the original texts in all their orthographical variety; there is a strange heresy abroad which suggests that earlier English needs to be modernised before it can be fully comprehended. This is nonsense. To modernise is entirely to change the meaning. (...) Plain opinions, plainly expressed, are always a pleasure to read -- even if the anthologist's interest in origins is matched only by his concern for those of Scottish birth. (...) Gray's historical and literary comments are always just and discriminating." - Peter Ackroyd, The Times

  • "Alasdair Gray's collection of prefaces is striking in its portentousness. With its solidly imposing type and marginal commentaries in red, this, it would appear, is a book which thinks it is the Bible. (...) (D)ynamic as it all undoubtedly is, the weight of accumulated substance becomes hard to bear." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Two 600-plus page tomes highlight Bloomsbury's banner year to begin the millennium. One volume -- the fourth instalment in the Harry Potter-series -- garnered most of the publicity, attention, and sales (presumably outselling all other non-Harry Potter Bloomsbury titles combined), but it is the other, Alasdair Gray's marvel of a book, The Book of Prefaces, that will likely be the more enduring.
       Gray's book was one of the few that was almost as eagerly anticipated as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire -- albeit by a much smaller audience. Pieces from The Anthology of Prefaces (so its working title) were published as early as 1991, whetting appetites, and in an interview published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in the Summer of 1995 Gray cruelly raised hopes by prematurely announcing: "I've finished The Anthology of Prefaces started five years ago." He notes that many have been misled:

It has now been announced so confidently for so many years that respected guides to modern first editions began saying it was published in 1989. (Joseph Connolly suggests £20 or less is a good second hand price, R.B.Russell puts it at £10.)
       As Gray admits in the Postscript to the book, in fact, "only now, on Tuesday 21st of December 1999 (...) is the book being finally completed." A long wait it was but, fortunately, The Book of Prefaces was worth that wait.

       It may seem an odd idea to collect prefaces. Or perhaps not. One of the original compilers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, William Smellie, suggested (in a preface) that:
Every preface, besides occasional and explanatory remarks, should contain not only the general design of the work, but the motives and circumstances which led the author to write on that particular subject. If this plan had been universally observed, a collection of prefaces would have exhibited a short, but curious and useful history both of literature and authors.
       Gray was immediately taken by the idea: "I saw at once it was a book I would want if someone else made it, but nobody had." And so he set about making it.
       Gray defines "preface" fairly broadly, and even then he includes a few pieces that aren't strictly introductory material, as well as stray postscripts and the like.
       Gray's focus is entirely on works in English, though he does include a considerable amount of introductory material (and opening bits) from translated works -- notably bible-translations (from Caedmon through Wyclif through Tyndal to the King James bible of 1611), as well as Chapman's Homer, Urquhart's Rabelais, and many others.
       Copyright issues (and specifically costs) limited Gray's reach: the last preface is the 1918 one from Wilfred Owen (published in 1920). Including copyright-protected prefaces from the 20th century proved infeasible (i.e. prohibitively expensive) -- an unfortunate state of affairs. It would have been a different book had Gray been able to include more than three prefaces from the early 1900s, but as it turns out the preface has long been an often important and illuminating part added by authors to their work and Gray easily collects enough material to fill this remarkable book.
       Gray sets out to cover all of English literature and, excepting the 20th century, he is successful. It is an evenly balanced collection, with prefaces from all eras -- including surprisingly many from the earliest English works. The first entry is from c.675 (Caedmon), and the first piece by Chaucer is only the sixteenth of the chronologically arranged excerpts. The first piece from the 17th century can only be found on page 236, the first from the 18th century on page 329.
       Gray divides the book up into sections, separated by brief essays that further explicate the linguistic, literary, historical, and political situation of those times -- vintage Gray, readily enjoyable separately from the book itself (as are the preface and postscript). The first introductory essay -- "On what led to English literature" -- is particularly useful.
       The poetic prologues (i.e. those written in verse) before 1500 (and one written later) are printed with a modern version beside them ("to explain obsolete words"). Most of the prose prefaces are left untranslated. By and large this is not a problem -- with some effort the olde English is readily decipherable. In fact, some of the translations pose more of an issue than the originals: if used only as a gloss the modernized versions can be helpful, but if used as a substitute (i.e. without reading and comparing the original) readers are likely to miss a great deal of the art and value of the pieces (as is invariably the case with translation).
       Next to each of the prologues are marginal glosses, printed in red ink, providing commentary on and background about the author, work, and period. Most of these brief commentaries are written by Gray, but he also had a great deal of help from his friends -- James Kelman, Philip Hobsbaum (to whom the volume is dedicated), Janice Galloway, Roger Scruton, and Virginia Woolf are just some of the contributors who provided glosses (which Gray then adapted for use -- though never contradicting their opinions, he claims).
       The prefaces themselves are an amazingly varied lot, taken from works of non-fiction (from political pamphlets to histories to philosophical treatises), fiction, drama, poetry, and religious works. Gray knows his literature and he loves it, and his choices reflect his broad reading and his fine ear. The writing in these pieces is generally of a very high standard, with many remarkable discoveries to be found beside the predictable standards. The excerpts (we counted 176) range in length from less than one page to thirty (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales -- taking up double the space as they are twice-told (in the original as well as in a modernized version)).
       Pretty much everyone who is anyone in the intellectual life of the English speaking world from the 7th century through the 19th is included, with some worthies who are not represented by prefaces -- such as Thomas Love Peacock -- quoted in epigraphs.
       Gray's work is a literary work, but the focus is not really on fiction or art. The Book of Prefaces is an intellectual history of the English-speaking world. The initial focus is on the development of the language itself. Gray's texts and explanations make for a marvelous introduction to the first English literary works and the evolution of the language. A number of biblical translations may not seem promising, but the prefaces and the excerpted parts are, indeed, useful, entertaining, even riveting.
       Gray's work is also an excellent history, especially of England and Scotland. His Scottish nationalism shines through, often as not, but there is little harm. This is not meant to be an objective account -- though Gray does, in fact, ultimately present a fairly balanced history.
       With his well-chosen examples Gray shows how literature, foreign influences (literary and political), philosophy, and history influenced and affected one another. The anthology is, surprisingly, a particularly vivid and vibrant textbook. The original source material -- the voices from the past -- are allowed to dominate, but the strong editorial hand and the instructive glosses in the smaller, red typeface complement the original texts well.
       Certain areas are obviously favoured. Love of language (fortunately) dominates, but Gray's nationalist stance and political views also colour the tome. Works supporting workers' rights, women's rights, and political freedom generally are liberally quoted. Many Scots and American independent thinkers are also found, but there is fairly little support for Empire.
       The prefaces themselves vary in quality and import -- though generally the quality is very high indeed and their import convincingly conveyed in the glosses. Most of the names are familiar, even if the works (even the classics) are now generally unread, but there are a few forgotten pieces as well. Most of the pieces are tantalizing introductions which, coupled with the glosses, tempt the reader to turn to the complete original texts.
       There are many other types of anthologies, notably those that offer actual sections of the texts proper. But Gray is onto something here: prefaces, limited in size, written with a specific purpose, can offer a useful summary of the text and the ambitions of the author (and often much more). They are also more readily considered separately from the text than any other section. They are not substitutes for the actual work, but they are an aspect of it of often considerable worth and can, indeed, be illuminating.
       Gray's Book of Prefaces supports Smellie's hypothesis that such a collection exhibits a "curious and useful history both of literature and authors." For Gray "literature" has always been a very broad term, and in this case it includes politics, history, philosophy, and even some science, all reflected in works that are also decidedly literary.
       "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation", is impressed in gold lettering on the front and back covers of the book (beneath the book jacket). Almost always critical and sometimes apparently pessimistic, Gray does hold out hope and does strive to better himself and the society he very much believes in. A great believer in literature and its value, his book is testament to the potential that literature had and has, a welcome reminder expertly presented.
       It is impossible to list the highlights in this book: almost every page is truly a pleasure to peruse. It is a book that can be read straight through -- arranged chronologically, it is a riveting history book -- but also one that can be dipped into and perused at leisure. It is a great deal of fun, and marvelously informative. And it is a book that should be on the shelf of anyone interested in English literature, language, and history.

       Like all of Alasdair Gray's books, The Book of Prefaces is a beautiful book. Richly illustrated by Gray, it includes drawings of many of the authors (on the cover) and the contributors, as well as some of Gray's marvelous graphic designs. There are the usual small, clever touches, from the Author's Blurb (correctly maintaining that: "Only the rich and illiterate can ignore our anthology") to yet another variation on the familiar "Goodbye" with which Gray closes his books. And we hope that the people at the Times Literary Supplement do repay his handsome acknowledgement (and advertisement) with a free subscription for life.
       Gray ends the book with the eight lines that close his first novel, Lanark, again all capitalized (and here in red as well). "I STARTED MAKING MAPS WHEN I WAS SMALL", he begins, and closes: "IT IS TIME TO GO". Lanark was a similarly large enterprise, taking even longer to complete. One can only hope that Gray does not intend the words to stand as bookends, marking the beginning and end of his literary efforts and his mapmaking. We look forward to the new, undiscovered, and forgotten worlds he can still show us.


       Note: The Book of Prefaces comes with its own errata slip, "An Appeal to the Buyer", listing twenty-two errors found after the book was printed (despite the efforts of "the editor and two proofreaders"). Unfortunately, quite a number of additional mistakes slipped past them even at this stage. For future reference, here are some that caught our eye:
  • p. 88: an excess n in "Ann intellectual"
  • p. 233: Shakespeare is accused of writing 36 plays "Between 1694 & 1613" (it should, of course, be 1594)
  • p. 629: "Heine's Reisbilder" would mean 'Heine's Rice-Pictures'. "Reisebilder" ('Travel-Pictures') is what it should be
       Unfortunately these are not the only mistakes. We're usually not very forgiving about this sort of thing, but we'll hold our tongues until the second, revised & corrected edition appears.

The original cover

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Links:

The Book of Prefaces: Reviews: Alasdair Gray Other books by Alasdair Gray under review: Books about Alasdair Gray under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Scottish author Alasdair Gray was born in 1934. A noted illustrator and author, he has written a number of remarkable works of fiction.

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