We talk about another book-series today, the great Oxford Books which have now all but disappeared from bookstore shelves but which for a brief while sported a title-list of impressive and joy-inducing variety and reach. Of course the jewel in the crown of these volumes is also the one that started it all and one of the greatest anthologies in literature: The Oxford Book of Verse (the Helen Gardner edition, with all due respect to the purists who prefer the weirdly idiosyncratic Quiller-Couch edition). Anthologies of anything are a dime a dozen, but it's in that revered volume that we can spot the overwhelming strength characteristic of the Oxford Books - the wisdom and activity of the editing.
It can be a tricky balance, of course. You want any editor to logical when surveying their subject - each time period fairly represented despite personal preferences, each school or format fairly represented, etc. But at the same time, you want any editor to be an involved guide - and that takes not only individuality but sometimes fierce iconoclasm. The ideal editor should be strongly opinionated but not excluding - he should acknowledge without rancor that some figures in a canon are more important than others, and he shouldn't let ennui prompt him to include trifles from titans and novellas from nobodies. The best kind of anthology should feel like following along while somebody who's read everything on the subject scans the library shelves and excitedly pulls down only a handful of volumes, reading out their best bits. They should send the reader on a perfect potted cruise, not trap them in the cellar of somebody's hobbyhorse rants.
You'd think that last part would rule out Auden, but no! His 1938 volume The Oxford Book of Light Verse is an endless delight, not least for its charming, informative, and entirely fascinating introductory essay by our illustrious host, whose critical acumen I've not always had occasion to praise. You can only nod when he writes something like this:
Light verse can be serious. It has only come to mean vers de societe, triolets, smoke-room limericks, because, under the social conditions which produced the Romantic Revival, and which have persisted, more or less, ever since, it has been only in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audience to be able to forget themselves and their singing-robes.
And the book itself employs such a wide definition of what constitutes light verse that we get heaping servings of everything from Chaucer to limericks, and all sorts of things in between:
Ireland never was contented.
Say you so? You are demented.
Ireland was contented when
All could use the sword and pen,
And when Tara rose so high
That her turrets split the sky,
And about her courts were seen
Liveried angels robed in green,
Wearing, by Saint Patrick's bounty,
Emeralds big as half the county.
An almost equally 'big' name - V. S. Pritchett - helmed the 1981 volume The Oxford Book of Short Stories, and there are just as many pleasant surprises here, although one very pleasant part isn't a surprise at all: Pritchett is usually a better prose writer than Auden, and his own introduction to this volume is a short, quietly intelligent meditation not only on the agonies of selecting from such a vast field but also on the nature of the short story in general:
A short story is always a disclosure, often an evocation - frequently the celebration of character at at bursting point: it approaches the mythical. Above all, more than the novelist who is sustained by his discursive manner, the writer of short stories has to catch our attention at once and not only by the novelty of his people and scene but by the distinctiveness of his voice, and to hold us by the ingenuity of his design: for what we ask for is the sense that our now restless lives achieve shape at times and that our emotions have their architecture. Particularly in the writers of this century we also notice the sense of people as strangers. A modern story comes to an open end. People are left carrying the aftermath of their tale into a new day of which, alarmingly, they can as yet know nothing.
In this volume we get several old familiar standards ("The Rocking Horse Winner," "The Open Boat," "Flowering Judas") but also several rarer choices (Walter De La Mare and the mighty Mary Lavin are not so anthologized today as they once were), and all of it gathered together by what one feels to be an exacting, exquisite unifying sensibility.
And sometimes, if we're honest, we'll admit that this sensibility itself is the main reason we own a particular Oxford Book. Certainly this is the case with the hugely entertaining 1992 Oxford Book of the Sea. This volume has great and perfectly-chosen representations of everything from Hakluyt to Dryden to Joshua Slocum to Samuel Eliot Morison, but the Main Event is nevertheless the 30-page Introduction by Jonathan Raban, which is so filled with vitality and lightly-worn erudition that it serves as an entry in this anthology, rather than merely an entrance to it. Here he is on the different realities the sea represented for British v.s. American sensibilities:
In the United States, as not in Britain, writing about the sea has been contiguous with 'nature writing', as if the sea offered not so much a counterworld as a liquid extension of the green fields and forests within the land itself.The classic British opposition between wild sea and tame land, between nature and culture, has simply not applied to the American experience. The great transfixing stories of cannibalism in Britain (of man gone savage through too much contact with unrefined nature), like the fate of the crew of the Mignonette, all took place at sea. In the United States, their locations were inland - in the Rocky Mountains, with Alfred Packer, who ate five of the six Democrats in Hinsdale County, Colorado, or the Donner Party. When Joshua Slocum left Boston in 1895 to sail alone around the world in Spray, the sea did not offer the only path available of solitary adventure, is it did to the British. Slocum could have packed his bags and taken the train to Oregon or New Mexico. It is an important difference.
For a brief moment in the 1990s, there was a whole shelf of various Oxford Books (Adventure Stories and Sea Stories seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye), and many of them were very nearly as good, as meaty and motivating, as these three. They're not much in evidence anymore, and it isn't that the audience for this type of endeavor disappeared (the Mammoth Book series - which we'll get to in the fullness of time here at Stevereads - just keeps adding titles to an already enormous backlist). I hope for a day when Oxford announces a wide raft of Oxford Book reprints - on cheap paper, affordable, with nice covers, only lightly updated if at all. These fat little treasure-troves deserve to be always in print.