Book of a Lifetime: The Road to Xanadu, John Livingston, Lowes

By Toby Litt
Friday 29 February 2008 01:00

It might seem strange for me to choose a book that I've never finished. But John Livingston Lowes's The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination isn't really a need-to-read-every-word kind of book. Rather, it's a get-completely-lost-in-it book.

I first discovered The Road to Xanadu in the library of Bedford Modern School. I was probably around 13 or 14 years-old – just starting to take writing seriously. I began systematically going through the books in my favourite alcove. These, luckily, turned out to include The Waste Land, the collected writings of Eric Satie and Lowes's phantasmagorical investigation.

Originally published in 1927, the subject of the book is the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his poems "The Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan". Coleridge was incredibly widely read. And Lowes quite quickly comes to the conclusion that he was the sort of reader who, when they find a footnoted reference to a book, will go off and read that book. And then all the books footnoted in that book. And so on and so on.

What was unique about Coleridge was that, somehow, tiny elements and details from all these books - many of them 16th- and 17th-century travel books – were submerged in his oceanic subconscious and then, years later, dredged up to create the nightmare sea-voyage of "The Ancient Mariner" and the fantastical architecture of "Kubla Khan".

The footnotes of The Road to Xanadu are themselves full of the kind of imaginative riches that are likely to set off poems in anyone. One of the books Coleridge consulted, on the subject of crocodiles, had the full title Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws; containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of those Regions, together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. And it's in these footnotes that I tend to get lost, start daydreaming, and forget that I should be reading the book to the end.

But, in some ways, I'm so fond of The Road to Xanadu that I don't want to finish it. Its argument, that Coleridge had one of the most extraordinary minds the world has ever seen, is there on every page.

The Road to Xanadu, along with Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence, is one of the books which helped me understand what writing is; that it's as much a matter of deformed psyches as of well-formed sentences; and that far from being drydock-deskwork, it's actually a marvellous messy, slithery, slimy, underwater business which involves both waving and drowning.

Toby Litt's latest novel, 'I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay', will be published on 6 March by Hamish Hamilton

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