The Reading Room: June '22
The once and future summer reading list
The Once And Future King, T. H. White
Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens
The Turning Point, Robert Douglas Fairhurst
August 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn
A little upkeep: Reader, I abandoned Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. It was just too grim. I’m not typically one to hide my eyes from the more unseemly sides of global history, but man, that’s a tough one. Particularly in light of what is happening in Ukraine right now. I’ll come back to it, I think — it’s incredibly illuminating in all its horror — but I needed to put it down for the moment. I pivoted, instead, to a book that is beloved in my family: T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.
Carson, several years ago, read it aloud to our son Hank during his pre-bedtime ritual, back when he was still down to be read to. (A quick digression: I miss those days. Hank was a fantastic read-aloud partner. He’s the kind of guy—and was the kind of kid—who hews to routine, and our nightly bedtime read-aloud time was a thing to set your clock by.) Carson and I got through a lot of great reading material this way: all of Lord of the Rings, all of Narnia, several more recent middle grade series, and even The Count of Monte Cristo, unabridged. Carson and I switched off, book to book or series to series. The Once and Future King, anagrammed to TOAFK (pronounced TOFF-kuh), was Carson’s book to share with Hank. They loved it; Carson has gone on to create work that is influenced by or alludes to episodes in that book. Ever since then, I had meant to read it myself (or re-read it—I had a vague memory of at least reading the first book of the series, The Sword in the Stone), so when Hank’s younger brother Milo and I were getting ready to embark on a drive to Astoria for a few days, I pitched the idea of listening to an audiobook of TOAFK, and Milo was down.
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We’re only halfway into the second part of the book, but I’ve been totally transported by it. I’m not sure that I did, in fact, read The Sword In The Stone as a kid, or if I did, I’m not sure that I internalized it as I have as an adult. It’s a masterful piece of work, swinging chapter by chapter between a kind of playful, childlike fantasia and quiet meditations on ethics and society. The thing is, it turns out the TOAFK that Milo and I are listening to is not the TOAFK that Carson and Hank read.
Ours is the Neville Jason reading, one of those NAXOS Audiobooks, and it conspicuously, I come to find out, cuts two sections from TOAFK (the ones with the ants and the geese), and adds three more: Merlyn’s battle with Madam Mim, the episode with T. natrix the snake, and the gang’s run-in with the giant Galapagas. This puzzled us all. Why was there such a disparity, not just between the versions of the book we were reading, but in the entire series as it was compiled from individual books into the composite of TOAFK? And so we headed out into the wilds of internet sleuthery to unpack.
Here’s what we discovered: In the 30s and early 40s, T.H. White set out to write a series of books based on Arthurian legend. He wrote five of them; only three of them were published initially: The Sword in the Stone, The Witch In The Wood, and The Ill-Made Knight. The last two, The Candle in the Wind and The Book of Merlyn, remained unpublished, deemed too anti-war by the publisher. By the time the first three books were out, it was 1941, Naziism was unmaking Europe (as we learn, to our horror, in Snyder’s Bloodlands), and there was little appetite for anti-war literature. It wasn’t until 1958 that TOAFK was published altogether, but with considerable revisions: TOAFK compiled slightly edited versions of the first three books and The Candle in the Wind, but took selections from The Book of Merlyn—which would remain unpublished—and slotted them into parts of the other books. It’s a bit head-spinning.
The Book of Merlyn was later published, posthumously, in 1977, in its entirety. That still doesn’t explain why our version of TOAFK, the Neville Jason audiobook, is different from Carson and Hank’s physical version. A little further thread-unraveling leads us to the following conclusion: Carson and Hank, at bedtime, read the “official” TOAFK, while Milo and I, while ostensibly listening to TOAFK, have been, in fact, listening to a TOAFK that is just the individual books of the series compiled into one volume. So we’re hearing the original version of The Sword in the Stone, free from White’s 1958 reconstructions. The thing is: having now read the two sections that were later appended to the OG Sword, I think the original is a better book. I know, I know, don’t @ me, etc. The battle with Madame Mim is hilarious and weird and exciting, as is the escape from Galapagas’s castle — the fact that they are simply lost from the story in TOAFK is baffling to me. The sections with the ants and the geese are great (particularly the geese), but I feel like Sword already strikes this careful balance between childlike adventure story and Merlyn’s pedagogy. To my mind, TOAFK, the 1958 edition, leans more into the latter at the sake of the former.
All this to say: I elect that someone, some astute T. H. White scholar and fan, should assemble a kind of The Once and Future King: The Complete Edition, where the lost chapters from The Sword In The Stone are returned to the first section, and the geese and the ants are placed back within The Book of Merlyn, which is appended as the fifth and final chapter of TOAFK, as White originally intended.
Let me know when you’ve got that going.
Having savored Little Dorrit and burned through O’Connor’s Wise Blood (which I enjoyed! a lot!), I was in need of a new audiobook, so I chose to return to the familiar landscape of Simon Vance reading me Charles Dickens. As it turns out, Mr. Vance has not read the entire oeuvre, as far as I can tell, and I am rapidly running out of Vance-does-Dickens audiobooks. Alas. I have a few left, though, and I chose Nicholas Nickleby because, well, why not, and I am now in the thrall of the maestro as Nicholas has just kicked the living shit out of his employer, Mr. Squeers, in front of the entire boys’ school and is now on the lam. It’s gripping! It’s hilarious! We’ll see how it all shakes out, but I already feel like Nickleby has a shot at the top five, gentle reader.
In parallel, I was at the library with my kid a few weeks ago, browsing the stacks while Milo tore through any number of graphic novels, which is his wont these days, when I came across Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst’s book The Turning Point, which is subtitled 1851 —The Year That Changed Charles Dickens and the World. Having just launched into the world of the poor Nicklebys, I figured it would be interesting to read this alongside. This might be the first time I’ve read a biography that sets out to chronicle a single year in the subject’s life. The book uses the Great Exhibition of 1851 as its central motif, with Dickens’ life and work kind of orbiting around the Crystal Palace there. My intuition is that the ambition of the premise — that this particular year was a kind of watershed moment for Dickens and the world — is a bit tortured, but it was super interesting to read a retelling of someone’s life in such granular detail. The climax of the book is the writing of Bleak House, currently holding strong at #1 in Colin Meloy’s Bestest Dickens Books Ever Or Fight Me List, so that’s cool to watch unfold (even though the first installment of Bleak House wasn’t published till 1852, and he was writing it up to its final 2xLP drop in 1853).
Did you know: Catherine Dickens, Charles’ wife, had ten children in the span of fifteen years? Good God. There’s some speculation she suffered from long-running postpartum depression, among other ailments related to this constant state of pregnancy. The poor woman. Also, Charles was shacking up with a mistress within a few years of their last kid, Edward, being born. Catherine and Charles separated in 1858, but not before Charles tried to get Catherine committed as insane in order to hasten that separation. Newsflash: Charles Dickens was kind of an asshole.
What else? Oh, right: August 1914 by Solzhenitsyn. This has been on my bookshelf for years (I think I picked up this copy, a 3rd printing of the first US edition, at Wallace Books while I was employed there back in ‘03 or ‘04) and it felt like a good book to read alongside Bloodlands. I’m about a hundred pages in, digging it so far, will report back in future installments of The Reading Room.
And that’s it! What’s on your summertime booklist? What’s folded across your chest while you doze in that gently swinging hammock?