Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wordcraft -- The best books you'll never read

With Goodreads and Shelfari sending plaintive inquiries for my reading list, I thought I knew how Rose-Mary Rumbley would handle the topic “Books You Never Get to Read” last week. I was sure Ms. Rumbley would, like my conscience, berate me over all the books I’d been too busy to read.

I should have expected more from the woman Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Dave Lieber calls “the best speaker in North Texas bar none.”

“You’ve never heard Rose-Mary Rumbley?” friends asked unbelievingly, when I pleaded the demands of a work schedule that made Ms. Rumbley’s appearance for the East Dallas Lakewood Library Friends my first exposure.

Truthfully, the question should have been, how had I avoided hearing Ms. Rumbley (with a first name spelled variously “Rose-Mary” or “Rosemary”). She’s made public appearances for more than forty years, giving six hundred talks a year, to most of the seventy-five book review clubs in Dallas -- and then some.

She has no website. I couldn’t find her on Facebook. Twitter? Doubt she’d consider. But fans packed the community room of the Lakewood Library for her discussion.

Near the beginning of her presentation, Ms. Rumbley, a former drama teacher, quoted the opening of a speech textbook, “If you’re going to make a speech, please have something to say!” An apt quote for this election year, although I wondered -- how is she going to talk about books that don’t exist, in some cases never existed?

Rumbley being Rumbley, she did, in a comedic monologue about an actually existing volume, The Book of Lost Books, subtitled An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You will Never Read. And written by Scottish author Stuart Kelly, whose sense of humor must rival Ms. Rumbley’s.

Kelly’s book, according to the New York Times review of Book of Lost Books, is about “works of notable authors that have been lost, destroyed, or never completed over the course of history.” In some cases, the only traces of their existence are references in the work of other writers.

Take a moment to mourn, for instance, Margites, the lost comic epic of Homer. Wait -- we’re talking about a lost epic by the poet who, according to modern scholars, never existed as a single person.

But maybe you’re passionate about Jane Austen. Wasn’t she the author of the classic Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Can there be any doubt of her existence?

“I’ve been to England and seen Jane Austen’s house,” Ms. Rumbley assured her audience. “There’s a sign in front that says, ‘she is not home.’”

When Austen died in 1817, leaving three chapters of an unfinished novel behind, her family destroyed it. Perhaps they were afraid it was all about them. And so the stories went.

If you want to read them all, you’ll have to see The Book of Lost Books. It’s available at and through the Dallas Public Library. 

I tried to check the book out, but found the library closed because of a tornado warning. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in yesterday’s tornado scares. Hope books were as lucky.

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