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Books in Hell: An Introduction & a First Selection

I do not collect books. Not in the way most book collectors do. Those kinds of books—wonderful writers, nice editions, firsts—I simply accumulate, along with—just as happily—the fifteenth printings of the wonderful writers with the patina of past readers upon them. But I do ardently collect books of a very specific sort. Books with strange, bizarre, wildly inappropriate titles. The limitation: the irony must be mine. If the author is aware of how strange, bizarre or inappropriate the title is, then I’m not interested. Over the years there have been a few volumes chronicling such books. The first one itself, ironically, fits the category. Published by Doubleday in 1928, it was entitled Queer Books. (Ah, for a collector like me, how wonderful are the effects of the evolution of words.) An excellent, modern volume on the subject is Bizarre Books by Russell Ash and Brian Lake. The first edition appeared in 1985 and has been updated several times since, most recently in 2007. I was collecting these books before 1985, but Ash and Lake have pointed me in many good directions, for which I am grateful. But I discover previously unchronicled great titles all the time, as I obsessively scour the end spines in used bookstores and search for naughty or odd words at AbeBooks. Britain’s The Bookseller magazine awards an annual prize for the oddest title and many of those are splendid, though the judges are too tolerant, in my view, of books with intentionally odd titles. The Awful Library Books blog also occasionally has a fine example. I daresay there are other sources. But nothing beats the (admittedly labor-intensive) approach of creeping along a bookstore shelf listening for the authentic voice of a benighted author.

Hell has been a recent important venue in my own creative life. I think of these books being consigned there. While the shelves of poor Sylvia Beach’s bookstore in the Underworld are stuffed with Reader’s Digest condensed books, these are the books that best represent the misguided human soul.

Over the months—and even years—ahead, I will work my way through my extensive collection, with photos and characteristic passages. I begin with a classic from a British young adult series of the 1930s. A group of boy scouts makes an archaeological discovery of pot shards at the bottom of a pond.

Scouts in Bondage

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Excerpt: “Dicky Ruthven was terribly impatient. He had taken his own find home with him, ‘to have tea with it, comb its hair, and fondle it,’ as Donald had said, joking in spite of his hollow feeling of depression…Maybe Dicky slept with the jagged lump of masonry under his pillow, for he was as proud as a peacock of his ‘find.’ And if he woke up during the night with the most pointed corner of it sticking in his ear, no doubt he only smiled in a seraphic manner and contentedly sighed his way to sleep again, with the comforting jab of the thing in the back of his neck. Or perhaps he had it clasped in his arms. Who knows but Dicky himself?”

by Geoffrey Prout. Scouts in Bondage, The Aldine Publishing Co., London, 1930.

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