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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary history

The Book of Lost Books

Stuart Kelly

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

To purchase The Book of Lost Books

Title: The Book of Lost Books
Author: Stuart Kelly
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005
Length: 338 pages
Availability: The Book of Lost Books - US
The Book of Lost Books - UK
The Book of Lost Books - Canada
  • An Incomplete History of all the Great Books You'll Never Read

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Our Assessment:

B- : a great idea, less than ideally executed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 7/5/2006 Sven Birkerts
The LA Times . 23/4/2006 Jane Smiley
The NY Sun . 26/4/2006 Fred Volkmer
The NY Times A- 5/5/2006 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 30/4/2006 Joe Queenan
The Spectator B 10/9/2005 John Gross
Sunday Telegraph . 11/9/2005 Rick Gekoski
Sunday Times A 28/5/2005 Sebastian Faulks
The Times . 13/8/2005 Katherine Swift
The Washington Post . 21/5/2006 A.J. Jacobs

  From the Reviews:
  • "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." - Sven Birkerts, Boston Globe

  • "Not every authorial adventure is as amusing as every other, but Kelly, originally a classicist, does what he can to make the best of his 85 subjects and their varied fates. The Book of Lost Books leaves us pensive, imagining all the works that are well and truly lost, even beyond "Anonymous," and thankful for what remains." - Jane Smiley, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Though he is no stylist, Stuart Kelly can produce the amusing phrase (.....) His scholarship is immense and lightly borne. He has written an entertaining and sobering book about mutability, impermanence, and loss." - Fred Volkmer, The New York Sun

  • "(C)lever and highly entertaining (......) Some of his observations are overly glib (.....) All in all, though, Mr. Kelly has succeeded in writing a charming and diverting book, a Borgesian library of books lost or missing or never written." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "An absolute joy, if a mite esoteric and demanding, Kelly's book is as appealing for what it is not as for what it is. In an age of slapdash laundry lists of places to see before you die, or dining establishments to visit before you leave Albuquerque, The Book of Lost Books is a work of great passion, insight and scholarship. (...) It is a book written by a passionate, erudite man who obviously lives and breathes great literature, aimed at likeminded souls. Where Random House hopes to find an audience for this book is beyond me." - Joe Queenan, The New York Times Book Review

  • "His case-studies are, for the most part, lively and diverting. He ranges widely, and his selection is spiced with some unexpected choices. (...) Much of the time, while Kelly is sketching his authorsí lives, the theme of lost books slips into the background. Sometimes it would virtually vanish if he didnít insist on it at all costs. (...) The Book of Lost Books is a frisky piece of work, a kind of scrapbook in which the author feels free to range well beyond his ostensible theme. As such, it has undoubted appeal. Kelly keeps the anecdotes flowing, and he has an engaging enthusiasm for the curiosities of literature" - John Gross, The Spectator

  • "Kelly's sense of what counts as "lost" is engagingly floppy, and ranges from the destroyed, misplaced or stolen to those many musings which were never brought to fruition. (...) (B)ooks that pique our interest, without then exhausting it, are curiously uncommon. How congenial, then, to find this charming and erudite book, with its wealth of mini-essays ranging across world literature from those Greeks to Hemingway and T.S. Eliot." - Rick Gekoski, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Stuart Kellyís excellent account of all the great books that have been lost to posterity (.....) Kelly is a bibliomane, whose passion for lists, dates and details fits him well for this task. Occasionally, one feels his desire to be all-inclusive might have been curbed (.....) These are small quibbles about what is on any view a formidable piece of bibliographical belletrism, which will serve better as reference or bedside book than as straight narrative." - Sebastian Faulks, Sunday Times

  • "Kelly seems to have an especial fondness for Sterne. Indeed, the ghost of Tristram Shandy seems to hover over the entire book. It is a Shandy-esque peregrination from Homer and Hesiod to Sylvia Plath and Georges Perec, with digressions, exclamations, changes of typography and a teeming cast of authors, critics, readers and careless housemaids" - Katherine Swift, The Times

  • "Kelly's writing is, at times, twee and labored (...). But that doesn't detract from the book's scholarship." - A.J.Jacobs, The Washington Post

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:

       What a great idea ! A compendium of and guide to the world's great lost books ! And Stuart Kelly sounds like the right man for the job: he writes that already at the age of fifteen he: "started compiling a List of Lost Books".
       Alas, The Book of Lost Books does not live up to its promise -- or its title. Rather than the hoped for compendium and guide, focussed on the books, Kelly emphasises biography: the books is divided into short chapters (generally two to eight pages), each devoted to a specific author. Starting with 'Anonymous' through Homer and numerous ancient Greeks, all the way to Sylvia Plath and Georges Perec, Kelly serves up one author after another of books (or at least pieces of writing) that have been in one way or another lost to us.
       The author-focus makes some sense: one of the problems with a lot of the lost books is that we don't know very much about them. And even just listing the titles of, say, the over 100 lost plays by Sophocles (if they are even known) wouldn't exactly make for exciting reading -- though we'd argue it would be of greater interest than almost all of what Kelly does offer. The author-focus also allows Kelly to provide (or revel in) context for the lost works -- including, in many cases: why they were written as well as how and/or why they were lost -- and that allows Kelly to give brief summaries of lots of fun episodes from literary and other history. Since he manages to present a roll-call of many of the best-known authors of all time (including Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Jane Austen, Byron, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Zola, Kafka, T.S.Eliot, and Hemingway) there's lots of good material to work with (though given how little space is allotted to each this, too, doesn't work out ideally).
       In some of the chapters the lost books are central, and the best revolve around individual works and their strange fates. Far more often, however, Kelly writes about the author (and the works we know them by) and does little more than mention that, by the way, a lot of his or her works aren't accessible to us any more.
       Kelly shows some flair with his lost-book obsession, from the tantalizing prospect that some of these works may resurface to unwritten books (not really lost, since they never existed). Occasionally, he tries too hard to 'lose' a book: Walter Scott's The Siege of Malta has only lost a few pages (though others are apparently very hard to decipher), but Kelly feels compelled to squeeze it in:

     The work itself is a ghost book: Scott was, if not technically, then artistically dead, and The Siege of Malta is a prose poltergeist, lingering in the world of the living.
       A more interesting diversion is his ruminations on the possibility of recreating a lost work -- theoretically possible, under some conditions, in the case of the once popular-form of the cento (since it is made up of the lines of another poet's work, rearranged to create a new poem).
       Aside from the lack of information about the content of so many actually lost books, the other major irritating factor in Kelly's book is his style. He writes, for example:
     With an author like Sappho, most of whose nine books of poems have been lost, the very lack of a tangible text encourages her imaginative resurrection. Like a figure in a hall of mirrors, she is distorted, refracted, skewed, and twisted by the reader's particular curvature.
       Kelly isn't exactly wrong, but such a passage shows -- besides the irritating style -- , once again, his focus on the author rather than the texts -- and surely "the reader's particular curvature" (well, you know what he means, right ?) distorts etc. everything s/he encounters, not just Sappho-images.
       Worse yet is when he tries his hand at humour, concluding, for example, his chapter on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in which he writes about writer's block (i.e. books that are lost because they never get written):
     Too often sufferers from this fearful incapacity are derided as delusional, lazy, vapid, unproductive, prima donna-ish, lackadaisical dreamers. They are not. They are ill. A telephone hotline or a support group should be set up.
       There is some fun to be had with The Book of Lost Books. The material is great, so it's pretty hard to completely screw that up (though Kelly does come close on occasion), and there are some interesting takes on particular authors and historical events. As a very general reference work on books that have been lost to us it is modestly useful, but far from definitive (and barely more than a starting point). At least the selection is nicely broad (Kalidasa to William S. Burroughs). Unfortunately, Kelly's style often grates, and the very limited space he devotes to each author doesn't help matters either, but as a book to dip into it offers decent entertainment value.
       The Book of Lost Books certainly isn't what the title claims it to be. As an author-focussed work of literary history it is modestly successful.

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The Book of Lost Books: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Stuart Kelly graduated from Oxford.

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© 2006-2010 the complete review

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