The Sharing of Books

I had meant to unpack the bags of books last night and get them sorted out, but they’re still on my desk, threatening to topple over. Hopefully they’ll stay that way for a few days. I *ahem* found a few things.¹ Powell’s can be dangerous. Let that be said as well.

The last time I visited Powell’s, back in July, was with Barth Anderson. He shared a great little ritual where we each picked out two books for the other. We tried to find things that were influential to us but that the other might not have, and as luck would have it, we both picked pretty well. The first two in the list below were the ones I chose for Barth, and the other three are there because they make up the remainder of my short list when I’m asked about five books that mean a great deal to me.

1. Bangkok 8, by John Burdett
2. White Jazz, by James Ellroy
3. Word Made Flesh, by Jack O’Connell
4. Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
5. The Book of Lies, by Aleister Crowley

In some way, these are all secret histories. It’s true, as Jeff mentioned in his introduction, I do have a bit of a fascination with secret histories. It’s the sort of love that isn’t quite as detrimental as the full-blow conspiracy theorist’s paranoia, but if we’re not on a slippery semantic slope there, we can definitely see where the grade changes. Much like the guy who says he’s not an alcoholic, as he has his third martini of the evening. “I can quit anytime I like.”

At the risk of belaboring the phrase to the point where it becomes meaningless, I’ll posit that all mysteries are, at heart, secret histories, wherein the “accurate and true record of these events” that are presented to the audience are revealed to be a lie. The world becomes one long, rolling story that gets revised as we go along, whether it be the historical record that gets redrafted by those in power, or the religious record that gets tweaked as the needs of the priesthood changes, or the personal history that gets forgotten as we try to shield ourselves from the embarrassing things we’ve done while wearing a rabbit suit and running down the street with a bowling ball chained to our leg.

And the real question is: why do these sorts of re-visionings of history appeal to us?

I’ll get to a few examples tomorrow of some recent stories that tweak history in a way that particularly tickles me, but for now, I’ll leave the above question open to you.


¹Not the least of which was James Sallis’ Gently Into the Land of the Meateaters, Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (with a glorious Gustav Moreau cover!), Stephen J. Gertz’ Dope Menace (a lurid picture book about the sensational world of ’60s drug paperbacks), Wonder Bear (which Meghan mentioned last week and is every bit as lovely and surreal as the picture she posted makes it out to be), a couple of books about the Albigensian Crusade, and a copy of the Tao te Ching as translated by Aleister Crowley.


  1. says

    Welcome Mark! I’m glad you have good things to say about Word Made Flesh. It’s on my list of books to read. The Resurrectionist was one of the best books I’ve read in ages, but I really didn’t care for Box Nine as much…

  2. says

    Yeah, truth be told, it took me a couple of tries to get through Box Nine. Word Made Flesh is mightily hallucinatory, and O’Connell slips more than a little mysticism into his noir, which I really like about his world-building.

  3. says

    If I may answer your question: it’s because we love books. Revisionist history is another story– one that’s unknown to us– within a story that we already know. I don’t know if there’s a correlation but am thinking secret history afficionados (I count myself as one as well) are also well-known bibliophiles (which I am also). I figure we get the same thrill about reading a secret history as when we hold a book in our hands and crack it open to the first page. :-)

    But it’s good to know about the Jack o’Connell. I’ve seen copies on this far shore and I thought this would be a good book to start reading him. Personally, my favorite secret history book is Tim Powers’ Declare. Having worked in a newspaper for 7 years, I love the idea of giving secret reasons to the facts presented in a newspaper report.

  4. says

    *cognitive dissonance*
    I think they allow us to rationalize,
    our own irrational natures.

    Julius Evola’s Secret weapons of the Occult war.
    Is probably one of the best explanations as to why,
    some forms of propaganda are so effective.

  5. says

    I’m looking forward to your examples, Mark. As one who spends Saturday morning watching the History Channel on everything from UFO’s to Hell’s Angels to Galileo to Nostradomas, it’s like banzai cat says, I can’t get enough of it. So when the known history runs out, give me the secret history!

  6. says

    Banzai: Yes, Powers’ Declare is one of those perfect sort of books. It makes a wonderful sort of sense that his recently announced bibliography is to be called Secret Histories.

    ~: oh, yes. I must go do some reading now. Thank you for the pointer.

    Bill: It’s been a while since we’ve had cable in our house. This Saturday morning ritual makes me want to rethink that stance. Hmm. I’ll have to go look at what the History Channel is doing these days.