“Some books,” Poe’s narrator notes, “refuse to be read.” These are the famous closing lines of “The Man of the Crowd,” an enigmatic story about a man who follows a stranger through the city night. In the end we learn nothing yet everything about the stranger and his world.
A similar heuristic helps us to understand that category of books known as “reference works.” The encyclopedia, the dictionary, the bibliography, the atlas – they are the shunned things, bastards and orphans of the literary world. Who writes them? I have often wondered. Like pornography and poetry, these works are widely consulted, yet few admit to touching them. Those who admit to it, with some awkward pride, are regarded with something between suspicion and disgust.
It’s been quiet for years, I know. Writing was reduced to the minimalist forms. A product review, an interview, a short essay. There have been long, dead zones. To write is to think and re-think, to “ruminate,” as Nietzche called it. It requires tremendous effort and also some risk. I had little time for either venture during the past year, yet what little time I had I used to edit and write for reference works.
How did it come to me? It’s uncertain , but there is one sure culprit: my 2014 book about Don DeLillo. The book was very well reviewed, much to my relief, and it has sold at a good pace. This was largely because I wrote a book, not a study or a monograph. My first and only priority was to tell the story of an accomplished artist’s career and work, and tell it well.
Since that time, I have ocassionally been asked to contribute to academic projects about DeLillo. I largely declined because the proposals either bored me or were impractical. But then a publisher of reference works appeared, and like the narrator of “The Man of the Crowd,” I thought “now, here is something different.”
So I took the job. I was asked to compile and summarize 10-15 important articles about DeLillo’s short stories. Much neglected, yet very good in quality, I went about my business to select the best criticism on the topic. I did. I was then asked to edit the introduction to the entry, which was written by someone else, and I did that too. My role was that of Advisory Editor, and from the selection of critical articles to the introduction, I gave anonymous form to an entry that would help those readers who consulted the work. It is now available, I see, in the Short Story Criticism series, a reference guide for researchers and readers.
This first, surprisingly pleasurable foray into the mysterious world of Reference works has been followed by another. In this case, it is American Literature in Context, an encyclopedia of literary works and authors.
A wonderful editor from a Midwestern university contacted me last summer. I replied, but she did not. 6 months later, she replied, and explained why. It was a poignant reason – one a reader might encounter in a DeLillo novel, I thought. So I resumed my commitment, and this summer composed two entries. I finished the first this evening. It consists of 2,000 words on DeLillo’s career. Rather than simply rewrite my book in condensed form, I took the opportunity to comment on some works of DeLillo’s I had not touched on at length in that book (his novel Players, for example), and gave them a bit more attention. I am currently re-reading DeLillo’s hilariously good novel White Noise, topic of the second entry I will write.
Deadlines and word counts. Decisions. Revisions. Blank spaces between thoughts. Then suddenly, it comes together one evening. The word count is good. The prose feels strong; you know in some visceral way there is nothing more to be done. Tonight when I finished the entry, I closed up shop, cracked open a beer and went outside. Two bats were chasing insects against the waning day. I wondered again what it means to be a writer of Reference works, and of the anonymous readers I will never know, who will read the work and still remain as unknown to me as I am to them, yet somehow changed for it, strangers following one another on a nameless street.