John Crowley’s Reading Backwards Offers More Than a Decade of Brilliance

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John Crowley’s readers have great capacities for patience. Twenty years passed between the first volume of his Ægypt series in 1987 and its last entry in 2007; after his realistic historical novel Four Freedoms appeared in 2009, Crowley’s fans waited seven years for another major publication. With the 2016 publication of The Chemical Wedding, Crowley’s translation of an obscure seventeenth-century hermetic allegory, something changed. Whatever the cause — Perhaps the author’s retirement from teaching at Yale — Crowley has become prolific. A year after Wedding, he published Ka, a thick historical fantasy, alongside Totalitopia, a slim volume that combined fiction, essay, and criticism. And this month Crowley has released two thick hardbacks. The first, story collection And Go Like This, I reviewed a few weeks ago. Now Subterranean Press has released Reading Backwards: Essays & Reviews, 2015-2018.

As I look over its Table of Contents, it takes me a moment to remember which pieces in Reading Backwards are the reviews and which the essays. Even the briefest review often includes personal reminiscence or essayistic reflection, and since Crowley writes for venues like Harper’s that are prodigal with column space, many reviews run essay-length. There are more than thirty pieces included, so Reading Backwards runs over 450 pages. Topics covered include: Joan Aiken, visionary charlatan Helena Blavatsky, Elizabethan astrologer John Dee, designer Norman Bel Geddes, encyclopedias,, eternity, Ursula K. Le Guin’s kindness to a young writer, universal access, the relationship between clothing and violence in talking animal stories, falconry, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo comic strips, Thomas Disch’s poetry and prose, American and European theatrical design between the wars. And despite, despite all this proof of erudition, there’s even an essay “On Not Being Well-Read.”

If you’re a staff reviewer for a major paper or magazine, certain books require reviews, whether you’re interested or not. The book with the big advance, the insistent marketing, the seven-figure film deal, and the celebrity book club endorsement cannot go unreviewed. Crowley, thankfully, has never been a staff reviewer, and so he can read and review as he pleases. When Crowley takes a book under review, he’s motivated by enthusiasm, not duty. He expects to like most of the books he discusses, and while he recognizes and records flaws, he doesn’t dwell on them. From personal experience, I’ve learned that a negative review is easier to write than a positive or mixed one; Crowley is not one to take the easy route out. If there’s a danger to Crowley’s approach, it’s to his readers’ wallets. I first read Crowley’s introductions to the New York Review Books editions of Richard Hughes’s In Hazard and to David Stacton’s The Judges of the Secret Court, both reprinted here, while I was standing in a bookstore. I bought both books and found that I concurred with his judgment. His paean to Joan Aiken’s Wolves series in the Boston Review also prompted a purchase. If you’re as susceptible to book-buying as I am, Reading Backwards will test you.

The essays may not send you to the library quite so often as the reviews, but they’re of equal quality. The opening, “My Life in the Theater 1910-1960,” is a memoir of Crowley’s youthful fascination with theatrical stage design that poses questions about art and abundance, about other lives and dreams given over to daylight. “Everything that Rises” follows Cosmism’s techno-mystic utopian visions from their nineteenth-century Russian origins to a 2016 conference in New York’s Columbus Circle.  Other pieces make direct approach on metaphysical questions. Crowley proposes rather than pronounces; his essays are products of reflection written to produce reflection in their readers. You may not agree with the tentative conclusions of “A Few Moments in Eternity” or “Squeak and Gibber,” but the author is too genial in his manner and honest in his uncertainties to object to an unpersuaded reader.

As Crowley wisely acknowledges in his introduction, Reading Backwards contains some repetition. A few paragraphs from his overview of nearly great writer Richard Hughes reappear in the next essay, an introduction to Hughes’s novel In Hazard. Similarly, a Nabokov epigram pops up four or five times across the book,  and we grow familiar with certain lines of William Blake. Crowley also returns to the galvanic effect an early reading of Thomas Pynchon’s V. had on him. Were the repetitions more frequent or jarring, I suppose I might be annoyed, but in fact I was charmed and intrigued; you may learn a good deal from a man’s repetitions, and you’d understand less if Crowley had edited more. My one hope is that someday I have the pleasure of reading Crowley on Blake, on Nabokov, and on Pynchon.

Reading Backwards is, so far as I can tell, comprehensive: It includes all of Crowley’s criticism, essays, and occasional writing from the last decade. So thorough is it that I almost expected to find Crowley’s blog posts included, or even his red-pen markings of student papers. Its exhaustiveness is a virtue, and no piece deserved deletion, but read front-to-back in short order, Reading Backwards exhausts. Jump in; dart out; flip around; set the book aside; take breaks; read, as the book’s title suggests, out of order. You’ll find that Reading Backwards provides months of enjoyment.

Reading Backwards is available from Subterranean Press.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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https://www.tor.com/2019/12/06/john-crowleys-reading-backwards-offers-more-than-a-decade-of-brilliance/

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