Devilry at the printer's

Sean French annotates the many pleasures of a book that explores all the bits of books we usually take as read
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The Independent Culture

Invisible Forms by Kevin Jackson (Picador £9.99)

Invisible Forms by Kevin Jackson (Picador £9.99)

THE FIRST reaction of many people in the literary world on first picking up Invisible Forms will be a muffled curse. It's such a good, simple idea, carried out with such aplomb, yet nobody thought of it before. The bastard! What Kevin Jackson has done in this "guide to literary curiosities" is to examine virtually everything about books except for the main body of the text. He discusses titles, dedications, indexes, epigraphs, introductions, bibliographies. Some of these parts mimic the subject, and so more than half of his chapter on footnotes is itself in the form of footnotes. His chapter on marginalia is accompanied by crudely sardonic scrawled comments in the margin. His chapter on lectures is in the form of a lecture.

The book is crammed with wonderful oddities and shrewd observations; but the larger point is that there is no such thing as a neutral literary apparatus, invisibly supporting the text. Every bit of a book has its own complicated meanings and pleasures and, as Jackson repeatedly shows, in literature the scenery has a way of coming to the centre of the stage. The comments that William Blake or Samuel Taylor Coleridge scrawled in the margins of books they read have become significant literary texts. In collected editions, their "marginalia" have become the texts, and the texts they commented on have been relegated to the edge. A E Housman's notes in his highly technical editions of Latin poets are so funny and intelligent that they have now been lifted out of context and reprinted in paperback editions of Housman's prose. There was at one time a plan to publish the many anonymous - and reputedly brilliant - blurbs that T S Eliot wrote for dustjackets while working at Faber. It only foundered because no record had been kept of which ones he had written.

Invisible Forms would be worth reading just for the specimens Jackson has assembled. He cites, from Stephen Potter's Lifemanship, the (imaginary) writer who rendered his book critic-proof by dedicating it "To Phyllis, in the hope that God's glorious gift of sight may be restored to her". Readers assumed this was a tragic little waif, not realising Phyllis was the author's rather short-sighted 96-year-old grandmother.

Obviously, this is a book that has the reader shouting suggestions and objections while reading. I almost felt that it should be a website rather than a book, so it could accumulate examples and counter-arguments. To take one case: Jackson intriguingly discusses what makes a good book title. He might have quoted Martin Amis's claim that a too brilliant title is almost a guarantee of a very minor author indeed. (Amis's example was Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, which rather irritated me since I spent several years of my life writing Hamilton's biography).

What about bad titles? One could argue that the recent decline in John Updike's fiction has been accompanied by a series of dire titles: Memories of the Ford Administration, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Toward the End of Time.

And constantly there are Jackson's sharp perceptions. We can read a book aloud, but how do you read the footnotes aloud in a book like Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, whose footnotes are a crucial part of the text? (He might have mentioned Christoper Ricks's observation that you can't read aloud the title of Philip Larkin's poem: "MCMXIV".) Like much in this very enjoyable book, they seem just the sort of thing that you might have thought of yourself.

Except that you didn't.

 

 

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