Propaedeutic Prefaces of mirth

Robert Coates dips into Alasdair Gray's The Book of Prefaces

The Book of Prefaces by Alasdair Gray. Published 2000 by Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 640 pages, £16.99, ISBN: 0 7475 5912 0.

THERE is a certain type of book which usually ends up on the shelf of most learned wits who believe they have something to say to others (i.e. teachers). This is not necessarily because they are particularly enjoyable (the books, that is) or even necessarily that they must be read. Indeed it would be difficult to find a teacher of English language or literature that has for example read from cover to cover, let us say, Shakespeare’s complete works (although one or two plays would be a nice thing), the Norton Anthology of English Literature or even James Joyce’s Ulysses (come on be honest!). However, as tomes of great wisdom they have to be there to be dragged down every double period of Eng. Lit. (the next book to be reviewed by this author will be Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), so we can pretend we know the lot.

Alasdair Gray’s The Book of Prefaces is a book of such ilk which, however, presents three distinct advantages: 1) it is slightly cheaper; 2) it is (at least in the parts which he himself wrote) really quite enjoyable; and 3) you might end up reading bits which otherwise you wouldn’t have even dreamt of before. It is very much a book which Alice would have liked as it is full of illustrations and conversation: i.e. Gray’s own distinctive graphics and a Gloss which is conveniently written in red so we can say we know pretty much everything worth knowing about the author in question after a few short (read) lines. This is just as well as, frankly, there is no way that your average English teacher is really going to bother about the life and times of Anthony Trollope or George Bernard Shaw. And yet, how otherwise are we to fill the time of those dreary lessons?

'Aha’, I hear you say, ‘since when were G.B.H. or the likes of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin or even Adam Smith among the denizens of English literature?’ Indeed, one of the main attractions of this book is that it could be used to teach in ANY faculty of an Italian University where the powers that be have decided that the English language should be taught but not learnt. This is truly a guide for any hitch-hiker of the University system to say, ‘been there done that’ of anyone who wrote anything vaguely interesting in English (at least up to the early 20th century, when copy-right would have made any subsequent entry far too expensive).

The work is a comprehensive collection of prefaces of work written in English from three of the nations of the British Isles England, Scotland and Ireland as well as most of the states of the United States of America. The collection runs from Caedmon, an illiterate Northumbrian sheep-herd through the centuries to Wilfred Owen and the early twentieth century. However, we get ahead of ourselves! Gray introduces each of the sections of his collection first by a rather splendid display of his own Gothic Blakesque illustrations. These have a striking resemblance to the wood-prints found in the reading material given to Scottish primary school children, C.S. Lewis stories and Norwegian Expressions (i.e. Munch’s Scream). The gallery of portraits on the cover thus gives the whole book a feeling of other-worldliness as well as a strange sense of foreboding. This is not surprising as it is a pretty accurate enough description of what a Scottish rural primary school education used to be like if you were only to add Scottish country dancing as well.

We then get to the meat of the work. Gray prefaces his prefaces (the reader takes a breath aghast! what grammatical style!) with a quick history of life, the universe and English literature, which has little enough to do with the rest of the book. However, it has again three distinct things going for it: 1) it  is relatively short; 2) it is almost completely inaccurate (which is just as well as it would be rather dull if it wasn’t); and 3) it is by far the most memorable part of the book. It starts by asking four basic questions which struck a chord as I tend to ask them of myself each morning, i.e. Who am I?, How did I come here? What should I do? Where am I going? (Now if that isn’t a pretty neat lesson plan for a whole semester then what is?) These questions are then neatly answered by a number of different civilisations starting with prehistoric folk, through Greeks and Romans to the Jews and finally the English (as in Anglisch folk not English-British). This I suppose is a general justification of why bother in the first place to write a collection of prefaces. His description of what prefaces actually are is also rather illuminating: i.e. ‘seeing great writers in a huff’ – honest and nasty, ‘Biographical snippet’ – useful but boring, ‘the pleasure of the Essay’ – good plagiarist material and finally, ‘the pleasure of hearing writers converse’ conversational and bitchy.

The logical progression is a little tenuous at times but Gray's choice subsequently passes through English language literature with great finesse. From the destruction of the English (Angle now best represented by Lalland Scots, see David Lindsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis) language with Norman the Bastard (Gray’s title not mine), rebirth of the language with Chaucer and Wyclif, through the reforms and flowering in the Shakespeare era, revolution and establishment – Milton, Locke, Swift, Hume and so on, through the political, philosophical and poetical revolutions of Jefferson, Paine, Blake, the Romantics, finally, to the liberalism of the 19th century, Carlyle, Thackery, Darwin, Shaw and the rest.

More than any other work, it manages to give an impression of continuity and identity between the arts and the sciences as well as the religiously or politically diverse which is quite profound. It also makes for the most interesting of bed-fellows, both vertically through the disciplines, as well as horizontally across them and also across the nations. An oddball such as Blake, seems to fit so much more neatly at an intersection of that which went before, both politically and artistically in Tom Paine, Locke and even Milton, as well as what was to come, Robert Owen and his new society and even Coleridge’s Kubla Khan seems to jump straight from one of his illustrations.

Some of the chosen authors are quite amazing for their clarity over the centuries; Darwin and Adam Smith are both quite striking whereas others are quite dismal for their lack of it – Raleigh and poor old Marx to name but two. On this regard the gloss is just the thing. Without having even to wade through the most tiresome of even rather short prefaces we can ‘win friends and gain influence’ with the most amazing of trivia.

‘Ah, professor –  were you aware that Swift tried to dodge charges of atheism by suggesting that miracles were a means of testing the faithful? Or that Marx’s dad was an orthodox Rabbi’ (of course we were!).

It is sometimes a bit off-putting to see the names of poets reduced to an initial; a meeting of the romantic poets (K, C and W) would seem more like a KGB rendezvous than a literary society! However, the lasting effect is very good and a revival of this editorial device is quite overdue, especially if it is interspersed with fierce portraits and brightly printed text.

Prefaces is definitely one of those books which at the very least should be put on prominent view on the book case by the front porch and be brought out with the taking of a sherry and the eating of a peach at literary society meetings. Definitely a mix between a 'Bluffer’s Guide to English Literature' and a 'Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy' but much more serious (well, kind of!). A few teachers might even surprise themselves by actually reading a bit here and there!

*Reviewer's Note: Any references to persons or institutions living or dead are entirely deliberate (myself included).

Robert Coates holds two honours degrees from the University of Edinburgh, where he specialised in mediaeval history with a thesis on the Normans in Sicily. An Adelaide Australian who was brought up in Fife, Scotland, he has been teaching English at the University of Brescia in Italy since 1987.

Note: This review was first published on November 15 2003 by JUST Book Reviews.

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