Abecedarian delights

The author of "Why The Tree Loves the Ax" picks five great alphabetical books.

Published March 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

What form will the thing take? That's the author's first question. What organizes these bits of experience and imagination into a book, what sequence of cause and effect, what pattern of logic or induction? Find it and you've found your art. Or you might sidestep such considerations altogether. Consider the alphabet: As orders go, it has the advantage of being, like life itself, at once arbitrary and inevitable. What's more, it doubles up, it overdetermines, arranging words in the pattern from which words are made. What could be more appropriate? Some say time is the medium of narrative and reason the foundations of argument. But here -- in no particular sequence -- are five books that dispense with them both.

Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish (1974)

The plan is simple: In the first chapter of this wondrous novel, every word -- every one -- begins with A. In the second chapter, with A or B, in the third, with A or B or C. And so on through Z, as incidents multiply and possibilities lie in patient wait. (First-person narration, for example, does not begin until Chapter 9). And then, upon the introduction of "Zambia" and "zoos" in Chapter 26, the process starts to close again, as letters are removed, one by one; and Chapter 52, reduced to A's again, yammers at its strictures like a prisoner who's just been denied parole. It sounds like little more than a gimmick, but the overall effect is startling and provocative -- a thriller and a tragedy, in which language binds narrative at the cost of binding itself.

A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes (1977)

The 20th century's answer to Plato's "Symposium." It is, in effect, a short encyclopedia of obsessive love, from s'abimer/"to be engulfed" to vouloir-saisir/"will-to-possess" (Richard Howard's translation retains the order in French). Barthes traces the bends in the lover's consciousness, analyzes every element of the beloved's behavior, and then maps them onto his favorite stories: Goethe's Werther, Proust, Freud. Every entry is wise, original and right, and the effect -- almost unique in post-War French belles-lettres -- is not to make life less real, but literature more so.

Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler (1926)

It would be cheating, I know, to include a dictionary on this list, but I hope I'll be forgiven for including a guide to usage, especially one as quirky and entertaining as Fowler's. I have used this book to win bar bets on the proper pronunciation of flaccid (look it up), to fend off editors who would change every "which" to "that," to check on the difference between a pigeon and a dove (there is none). Most often I flip through it for the sheer pleasure of the prose, the little bursts of dry wit, the eccentric categories of error ("out of the frying pan," "swapping horses") -- and for the marvels of exactitude that it contains: the fact that "the hoi polloi" translates as "the the [sic] common people," for example, or the proper pronunciation of "gutta-percha."

An Alphabet of Gourmets by M.F.K. Fisher (1949)

"A is for Dining Alone," is the heading of Chapter 1. " ... And so am I," reads the first line, "if a choice must be made between most people I know and myself." A typical Fisher move: Take a potentially cute or cloying moment and boil away the sentiment, until only the singular, stubborn precipitate remains. Was she a food writer, and this another cookbook? She was one of the geniuses of American prose. Fisher uses recipes the way Montaigne uses quotes from Horace or Virgil: as excuses for gathering anecdotes and memories, reflections and speculation. Here, she uses the alphabet the way a composer uses a musical scale: as one more conceit to conquer.

A Certain World: A Commonplace Book by W.H. Auden (1970)

Among the assets of special worth to poets, you wouldn't think mere intelligence was foremost. Better dumb brilliance, daring, besottedness. And yet Auden must be one of the most intelligent figures in 20th century literature, and this book, a collection of favorite passages by other authors, found in haphazard reading and collected under loose headings, would prove it, even if we did not have "The Shield of Achilles," or "Musée des Beaux Arts." Thus "Children, Autistic" quotes a pair of passages from Bruno Bettelheim; "Eating," an epigram by Bertolt Brecht; "Marriage," a poem by W.C. Williams. Interspersed throughout are Auden's own comments, mostly on faith and its consequences. But always he returns to literature, and the intelligence behind it. "World, End of the" is, after all, only the second-to-last heading. The last, of course, is "Writing."

By Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis is the author of two novels, "Sister", and "Why the Tree Loves the Ax", and is currently at work on a third novel, and a screenplay for American Zoetrope.


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