Stuart Kelly, pictured above from an article on the Book Critic Circle’s site, has written a book about lost books.
Sunday, March 8, 2009


The Book of Lost Books

It’s not an easy task to write a book about books that nobody has seen in several hundred or a thousand plus years, or about books that never got written in the first place. What Kelly does is provide you with information about what is known about the book, or why it was never written. For example, Leibniz was going to write a book that summarized all knowledge. As Kelly describes it, he was going to fully describe every atom in the universe, which would require another, bigger universe of atoms. This, naturally would be a recursive procedure, so it could never be done.

He covers the documentary hypothesis regarding the composition of the Pentateuch. This explains various inconsistencies by postulating a number of authors, J, the Yahwist; D, the Deuteronomic author; P, the Priestly author; E, the Elohist; and R, the Redactor. Now, you’re probably wondering why is the Yahwist author called J. Kelly doesn’t explain this, but I believe the explanation is that the Yod in the tetragrammaton, the Hebrew word for God, was pronounced with a J sound in German. So you get Je-ho-vah by sticking a vowel in between every Hebrew consonant. Modern scholars insert only two vowels, and we get Yah-weh.

One author, who has had his work partially recovered in modern times, is Menander, a Greek comic playwright. Intgerestingly enough he is quoted by St. Paul. In I Corinthians 15:33 Paul says, “Be not deceived. evil communications corrupt good manners.” That raises an interesting question concerning divine inspiration and scripture. Was the original author inspired to write it, or was St. Paul simply inspired to quote it? Given the nature of the source, a Greek comedy about a courtesan, what was Paul doing reading such worldly literature anyhow? There’s also an allusion, which I believe Paul mangles, to the Epimenides paradox in Titus, and a quotation from the apocryphal book of Enoch in one of the non-Pauline epistles.

Kelly gives a story about the loss of the work of Aeschylus, the earliest of the three great Greek tragedians. According to Kelly the sole manuscript of the complete works of Aeschylus was preserved at the library of Alexandria. No copies were permitted to be made, and the manuscript was preserved until 662 AD. The Muslim forces that sacked the city asked about the library, and their leader replied, "They will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." Naturally, so many heretical or superfluous books could not remain, so they were used to heat the soldiers’ bath water. (See the Wikipedia article on the library for details.) While I confess that this story, especially in view of the actions of many Muslims, ranging from the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas to the cartoon riots, seems all too probable, I gather that it is probably false.

Kelly doesn’t always share my likes and dislikes. He dislikes Tasso, and I found Gerusalemme liberata, relatively enjoyable. He does give a number of interesting stories, including the background on Sylvia Plath-Ted Hughes. I’ve never been interested in Plath. It seems to me that she and some other modern women poets are favored because they are women who wrote and who committed suicide, not because they were good writers or poets. Kelly, as I’ve said provides some of the background on their marriage, and their poetry. I’m still not motivated to read Plath though. Of modern women poets I prefer H. D. I read Helen in Egypt a year or two back, and found the lady’s verse quite good.

I’ve been reading this upstairs while the computer does its thing. I’ve also been reading The Bad Catholics Guide to Good Living, which is the next item after this.

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