'Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers'; 'Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry'; 'The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else'

Curiosities of Literature

A Feast for Book Lovers

John Sutherland

Herman Graf/Skyhorse Publishing: 288 pp., $22.95

This totally silly literary miscellany is "loosely inspired" by Isaac D'Israeli's 1791 bestseller "The Curiosities of Literature." It is for people who read too much, so much that the odd bits coalesce across centuries and proclivities and even form. It's a parallel classification system: references to "Bovril and World Domination," for example, or Lorna Doone biscuits. Had you ever considered the correlation between great writing and asthma? "Literary wheezers" include John Updike, Charles Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Pliny the Elder and Edith Wharton. And wouldn't you like to know a few of the "Great Writers' Little Helpers"? Coleridge (opium), Kerouac (Benzedrine nasal inhalers), Aldous Huxley (mescaline), Robert Southey (nitrous oxide). There are the firsts -- first writer to produce a novel on a typewriter (Nietzsche and Twain duke it out in these pages), and the worsts -- worst handwriting, worst wedding-night scenes.

John Sutherland, an eminently respectable professor of English Literature at University College London who also teaches at Caltech, clearly has a Monty Python side. He once taught a course called "Impossible Literature" whose syllabus included books that are impossible to read, like "A Void," the 300-page thriller that Georges Perec wrote without using the letter "e." Or "Time's Arrow," the novel Martin Amis narrated backward in time. Once a student wrote an essay inspired by the scene in "The Grapes of Wrath," in which a lactating woman suckles a starving man, investigating the "nutritive value of human milk and how long, precisely, one suckle would maintain a fully grown man on the verge of death from starvation." I loved this book.

Close Calls With Nonsense

Reading New Poetry

Stephen Burt

Graywolf Press: 374 pp., $19 paper

Unlike Sutherland's book, which is more or less a road map to nonsense, here is a no-nonsense tome designed to help the reader avoid nonsense -- the kind that frustrates those trying to find meaning in poetry. "[L]ook for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot," Stephen Burt advises readers. "Enjoy double meanings: don't feel you must choose between them." Books on how to read poetry are usually odious, but Burt's heart is in the right place, and the effect is more relaxing than castigating. "These essays, if they work rightly, are not only like instructions (the ones we get with flat-packed furniture); they are also like introductions (the ones we get when meeting new people)." Burt introduces many poets, like James K. Baxter and John Tranter (founding editor of the online poetry journal Jacket) and gives a bit of insight into more playful poets like Les Murray. The last essays are helpful in reading the work of better knowns like John Ashbery ("the great inventor of a style fluid enough to reflect our uncertain times") and A.R. Ammons ("not a fox but a hedgehog").

The Whole Five Feet

What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else

Christopher R. Beha

Grove Press: 258 pp., $24

Picture Christopher R. Beha, 27 -- still shaky after an anxiety attack that sent him back to live in his parents' Manhattan townhouse -- alone in their library on New Year's Eve. He's quit his job, the novel he's been working on for five years is not having the effect on potential publishers that he had hoped, he's broken up with his girlfriend and it's too early for a mid-life crisis. He picks up the first volume in his father's set of Harvard Classics: Known informally as the "Five-Foot Shelf, the set spans the time from the ancient Greeks to the end of the nineteenth century, and it includes poetry and fiction, history and philosophy, science and theology." "The Five Foot Shelf" was compiled in 1909 by Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard University for 40 years. At that time, only 3% of all Americans were college educated; only 13% finished high school. Eliot intended the books for the working reader who might come home at the end of a long day and read for 15 minutes or so, thereby gaining "a fair view of the progress of man observing, recording, inventing, and imagining from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century." We cozy up next to Beha as he takes a year to read the entire set (he is especially taken by Milton and Ben Franklin's "Autobiography") and thinks about his life, his brush with death (Beha was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in college), his Aunt Mimi's illness and death. We see how reading affects his still-plastic sense of himself. But we also are reminded that it is a two-way street: "[T]hese books have helped me to find meaning in events -- illness and loss as well as moments of great joy. . . . At the same time, life helped me make sense of these books."