A foundation stone for a personal library - or almost any other kind

February 16, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

There is no such thing, of course, as a completely comprehensive library. Actually, the United States Library of Congress, official repository of all U.S.-copyrighted books, comes close to doing the job, at least with American publications. Yet even in English it has inevitable gaps.

So what's a lone citizen with aspirations of bookish thoroughness to do?

There are lots of specialized reference volumes, and increasing electronic sources, academic and otherwise - listings by subjects, by any number of other criteria and vantage points, quirky, technical, professional.

There is "Books in Print," used mainly by the book industry and libraries. It comes in nine volumes - four by authors, four by titles, and one by publishers - of immense weight and inclusiveness, some 2 million entries, listed simply by the title, author, publisher and price, along with the International Standard Book Number. It not very useful for the general reader.

But by far the most utilitarian device I know for private purposes is "The Reader's Catalog," edited by Geoffrey O'Brien. (RC Publications. 1,968 pages. $34.95). A second edition is just being published.

The scope of the endeavor is, as the kids are wont to say, awesome. The credits list 31 editors, designers and others and an additional 22 contributing editors. Besides that, there is a roster of contributors that goes on beyond my ambition to count, but appears to contain somewhere between 120 and 150 names, many of them distinguished.

Hesse, Nietzsche, Neruda...

Seven years ago, the first edition came out after vast labors by Jason Epstein, the author, poet and editorial director of Random House. Something in the range of $1 million was committed to the project, which should ease the sense of frustration of those who, like me, have struggled and failed to compile and effectively maintain private inventories of books of special merit. It sold reasonably well - 150,000 copies.

The core idea is that it is a listing of some 40,000 of "the best books in print," all in English, all still available on the retail market in America. Obviously, some of them may fall out of print, but it amounts to an annotated catalog, broken down into more than 320 separate categories (and hundreds more subcategories), ranging from "The Varieties of Civilization" (p. 5) through "Dutch Literature" (p. 985) and "Fitness" (p. 1434) to "Books for 8s, 9s, and Up" (p. 1826). There are sections on literature in 30 separate language and culture categories.

Illustrations by David Levine are sophisticated and delightful. There is a substantial number of photographs of authors. The new edition is substantially grander and fuller than the first.

So what's its use?

Well, suppose, for example, you are in obsessive pursuit of ecstasy and are convinced it is to be found coincidentally in the works of - say - Hermann Hesse, Friedrich Nietzsche and Pablo Neruda.

In the index, you would find a single-page citation for Hesse, listing five novels, each with a one-sentence description ("Steppenwolf: A Surrealist narrative recounted by an artist-outsider who eventually comes to believe that misfits may find harmony with each other"), and the Fairy Stories. Two of the books have two edition citations.

For Nietzsche, the index cites five pages. There are three books under Historiography ("Human, All Too Human," "Untimely Meditations" and "The Use and Abuse of History"), a second listing under World Religion ("The Twilight of the Idols & The Anti-Christ"), a long Nietzsche entry under Philosophy (20 volumes by him and 16 about him), and one under Dramatic Theory and Criticism ("The Birth of Tragedy").

For Neruda: Three page citations, all under Latin American Literature - 23 under "Poetry: Chile," one under Peru (co-authored with Cesar Vallejo), and one under Criticism, Memoirs and Other Prose. That, of course, may send you reeling to simpler venues - or a warm fire - for your ecstasy. (Actually, I recommend just that.) You will know what books you may want to order, or to run to the library for, or to settle a bet with.

The best of its kind

Do not look to "The Reader's Catalog" for what it is not. It is not, above all else, a critical exploration, a book of scholarship or intellectual enrichment or provocation. This is no collection of stimulations or fearless cultural appraisals. But as a catalog it is unmatched, unchallenged, inimitable - and, at 35 bucks, astonishingly inexpensive.

It is vague about which books earn a short description and which do not. Few books get more than eight or ten lines of narrow-column text, but many get only the basic data: International Standard Book Number, title, publisher and price.

Most of the appraisals and appreciations are unattributed, though occasionally they are cited as coming from a named critic or a publication. That latter usage should be punished at pain of public ridicule: The New York Times - or for that matter The Sun - does not review books, but rather publishes reviews written by critics, who should be cited as the source.

That's a niggle, perhaps. It does not diminish the value of "The Reader's Catalog," which is a wonderful device for checking the existence of books. And for acquiring them, since any book shop worth its name should be willing to locate or track down any volume catalogued here, or at the very least to send the yearning buyer off to a shop competent to do its job. If your bookseller is incompetent, "The Reader's Catalog" carries an 800 number, a fax number and a website, through all of which one can order any book at all, whether it is listed or not.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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