Why rediscovering forgotten books is so important, says Ian McMillan

Very occasionally, in a charity shop or at a jumble sale, I find a book I’ve written. Sometimes the book is well-thumbed, sometimes it’s in pristine condition. Once or twice I’ve found a signed copy and once I found one of my books with a review of it from a literary magazine stapled inside the back cover. It’s a kind of obscurity, I reckon. And it’s a kind of fame too. It’s obscurity because finding these books reminds me that most writers get forgotten and neglected. It’s a kind of fame because to be found in a charity shop might lead to rediscovery and lots of your out-of-print books being reprinted and film rights being sold to the highest bidder.
Ian McMillanIan McMillan
Ian McMillan

I’m thinking about this fame/obscurity meeting place because I’ve been reading a brilliant book by RB Russell called Fifty Forgotten Books, which is an account of a personal reading journey into the half-lit corridors and haunted wings of literature in search of pure linguistic gold. RB Russell is also Raymond Russell, one half of the team behind Tartarus Press, a publisher that dedicates a lot of time and love to reprinting forgotten works of weird and supernatural fiction and so it’s maybe no surprise that a number of the volumes described in Fifty Forgotten Books are of the macabre variety.

For instance, there’s The Tenant, by Roland Topor, a book that had completely passed me by until now, but which I now want to read, and I guess that’s the point of Fifty Forgotten Books; it makes the reader want to find these books and read them and thereby make them found rather than lost rather than being reforgotten, to use the writer Iain Sinclair’s marvellous word. The Tenant is about an apparently outsider figure called Trelovsky who tries to become accepted by his neighbours in a threatening and unfamiliar city. There’s elements of the absurd in the story, as well as a sense of existential threat. I’ll be looking out for it in charity shops from now on; it’ll be at the bottom of a pile of my books.

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There’s so much to enjoy in Fifty Forgotten Books; once you read about one book that’s slipped off the shelf you want to read about more. There’s Flower Phantoms by Ronald Fraser, originally published in 1926; apparently on one level it’s a love story between a human being and a flower and on another level it’s an exploration of the way that language shapes our feelings which in turn shape the way we live our everyday lives. There’s Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker, which is about a larger-than-life poet, the eponymous Miss Hargreaves, who in the book is originally a figment of someone’s imagination in the book but who then comes to life. There’s The Paris Notebooks by Quentin S Crisp (the S is to stop the reader confusing this Quentin Crisp with the more famous/infamous Quentin Crisp) which is really the diary of a nobody recording his feelings about the French Capital and, in an illuminating sentence RB Russell writes ‘The Paris Notebooks are disconcertingly honest in practical details as well as personal and intimate thoughts, while being oddly vague…he admits that he lives on the periphery of existence in terms of financial security, literary success, and sexuality. It’s on my list! The other two I’ve just mentioned are also on my list! All the fifty books the book talks about are on my list!

Fifty Forgotten Books is published by the marvellous independent Sheffield press And Other Stories and I recommend it if you want to splash around in the deep waters beyond the mainstream.

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