No Words Wasted Sale

The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, March 18th, 2003


The Book of Prefaces

by Alasdair Gray

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

The editor of this exuberant anthology was inspired by William Smellie's 1790 observation that every preface should include "the motives and circumstances which led the author to write on that particular subject." Smellie wrote, "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." And indeed this book — containing prefaces by great British and American (mostly British) writers from the beginning of vernacular literature to 1918 — is an idiosyncratic, illuminating, and, although 640 pages long, succinct survey of Anglo-American civilization. Thanks to its chronological arrangement and concise, perceptive marginal glosses (printed in red — one aspect of the book's sometimes overly whimsical design scheme), readers can see the language change from decade to decade and can discern that a culture's literature is a conversation across centuries. (Hence in his preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley bolsters his "passion for reforming the world" by enlisting Bacon against Malthus and William Paley.) This book is delightful, amusing, and instructive.

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