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the Complete Review
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Fifty Forgotten Books

R.B. Russell

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To purchase Fifty Forgotten Books

Title: Fifty Forgotten Books
Author: R.B. Russell
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2022
Length: 255 pages
Availability: Fifty Forgotten Books - US
Fifty Forgotten Books - UK
Fifty Forgotten Books - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: And Other Stories
  • With many photographs

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing bibliophile memoir

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 2/8/2022 .
The Spectator . 8/10/2022 Peter Parker

  From the Reviews:
  • "Filled with quirky observations and personal asides, this is just right for book lovers." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Russell more than makes up for this cavalier net-spreading in his chapters on genuinely forgotten books. (...) Much of this is entertaining, in particular his accounts of booksellers, some of whom are as murky and mysterious as anything in the recommended titles. (...) Russell informs us that a recent survey found that, contrary to popular belief, there are ‘more second-hand bookshops now than there have ever been’, and this engaging, idiosyncratic volume should send readers scurrying to them in pursuit of the curious and recherché works that it champions." - Peter Parker, The Spectator

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:

       As author R.B. Russell makes clear right at the outset, Fifty Forgotten Books: "is intended to be a personal recommendation of often overlooked and unloved novels". It very much reflects Russell's own interests and preferences, including for the short-story form and supernatural fiction, and with, for example, favorites Arthur Machen and his work getting considerable attention (and featuring in four of the fifty book-chapters). As co-publisher, with his private and professional partner Rosalie Parker, of Tartarus Press, Russell also singles out several titles published by Tartarus -- not least, Parker's The Old Knowledge -- as well as, for example, a collection by frequently-mentioned colleague Mark Valentine, At Dusk.
       Beside a bit of introductory material and a short concluding reprise, the book has fifty chapters, each titled with the title (and the name of the book's author, along with, in small print, information about the date of first publication and the publisher, as well as sometimes later editions and/or the first one Russell owned) around which the chapter is then framed. However, Russell does not simply devote each chapter to the book in question. He often mentions what bookshop he purchased a given title from -- and also whether or not he purchased more or different editions later on (he is a collector, and has a weak spot for first and fine editions) --, and he often digresses about the circumstances surrounding the book, edition, or author; several times the book itself is only a starting-point and doesn't even feature that prominently then. He slips in mention of many other works along the way as well, by the author in question, or simply because of some close or loose collection to that particular book -- and so, in fact, Fifty Forgotten Books points readers to many more works than the title suggests.
       Proceeding chronologically, Russell leads the reader through his own growth as a reader, describing how he first came across these titles or what led him to them. Biographical detail is woven in throughout, from schoolboy-age through his university years -- studying architecture --, jobs, his activity with several literary societies, including the Friends of Arthur Machen. a fellowship of which he remains the chair, and his own literary work. The latter range from the first Tartarus Press publication -- his "guide to Arthur Machen's favourite pubs", a photocopied edition of fifty, published in 1990 -- to a successful run of editions of The Guide to First Edition Prices starting in 1997 (a time-consuming but remunerative exercise he continued until 2010) to a few mentions of his own fiction. There's also his translation of one of the books that features in his fifty, Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes -- see the Tartarus Press publicity page --, a translation about which he admits:

I created a new text that was as much a reimagining of previous translations, and based on what I hoped Alain-Fournier had written, than on my understanding of the original.
       Russell is also very much a book collector, and he often discusses the physical versions of books as well -- noting which edition he first read a book in, and which editions he later found, or still seeks. The physical condition of books is noted numerous times -- as is the hunt for a favoured version, often a first edition. He notes the collecting-hazard of accumulating too many books, but admits to having multiple editions of several -- and, for example, concludes his chapter on Roland Topor's The Tenant:
I have three copies. If I ever find a first edition that I could afford, that would mean I'd have four. It remains an ambition !
       Collector's pride also comes through in the incidental mentions, as he can't help but slip in -- here in the chapter of The House of the Hidden Light by Arthur Machen and A.E.White -- that:
Apart from the authors mentioned elsewhere in this book, on our shelves (and much treasured in first editions) are W. Somerset Maugham's The Magician (1908), Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945), Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood (1952) and William March's The Bad Seed (1954), amongst older fiction. I have also enjoyed and tracked down first editions of more contemporary books such as A.S.Byatt's Possession (1990), Donna Tartt's The Secret History (1992), Louis de Bernières' Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1994) and Peter Ackroyd's Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994).
       (At a later point he also notes, in yet another humble-brag-variation, that: "far dearer to me than, say, my signed Margaret Atwood and Peter Ackroyd books are the treasured association copies written by living friends that have been personally inscribed to be and Rosalie".)
       It is this rambling far beyond the 'fifty forgotten books', both literary and personal, that does make for much of the volume's charm -- and makes Fifty Forgotten Books as much a bibliophile-memoir as book-guide. Immersed in the world of book-buying -- there's quite a tour of second-hand-bookshops to be found here -- as well as collecting and publishing, the actual reading sometimes takes a back seat, but that's okay; the book world and his experiences in it he describes are certainly also engaging.
       As to the fifty highlighted titles -- it is a very personal selection, and even at that idiosyncratic. One of the first books covered is one by Harry Price, which he admits he never bought a copy of (he borrowed the one he read, in his teens) -- and he then even goes on to explain: "I have never seriously regretted not buying The Most Haunted House in England, because I seem to recall that it is actually a little dull and repetitious" -- hardly a recommendation. Among the other books that get a chapter of their own is A Bibliography of Arthur Machen -- rather unlikely reading-matter for most readers. These are significant books from Russell's own reading- and life-journey, and while many of the others are likely of more interest to general readers, the volume remains very true to the self, a very personal selection.
       Readers might find fewer 'lost gems' here than hoped for, with Russell noting some of the limitations of what he presents here (wondering, near the end also, for example: "why so few books by writers from non-white cultures had impinged on my reading experience over almost fifty years"), but it's an insightful overview of one reader's life in books, and certainly interesting as such -- not least, perhaps for readers with different interests and attitudes (such as myself, who doesn't care much for anything dealing with the supernatural and who would rather have a book in a mass-market paperback edition than a pristine hardcover first ...).
       Fifty Forgotten Books may not lead readers to all too many books -- though most should find some that are of likely interest to them -- but offers more than enough otherwise for any book-lover -- because, also, it is so clearly written by one --, and is certainly an appealing little read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 October 2022

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Fifty Forgotten Books: Reviews: R.B. Russell: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Author R.B. Russell is also the co-publisher of Tartarus Press.

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© 2022 the complete review

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