Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why H.G.Wells, or What is Missing

So the venerable and august Literature Club’s theme for 2011-2012 will be “Literature as a Lens of History”. Initially I wasn’t at all clear what was meant by this topic (having missed a key meeting, apparently) but I quickly overcame that difficulty. It means whatever one wants it to mean. That is the beauty of many of our Literature Club themes.
When the theme was “20th Century Masterworks”, the programs ranged from Kingsley Amis to Gertrude Stein to the 13 volumes of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. In our year of “Seeds of Self,” we heard papers on such disparate characters as Sylvia Plath, Mabel Dodge and Kim Philby. It is true I might have had a hard time making a case for Balzac when the theme was “Voices of Islam”, but I did manage a paper that discussed Virgil and Nick Flynn when the topic was “Science and Literature.”

So what literature shall cast its lens on what history?
I am considering, H.G. Wells, and my family history.

Now I often start my research with a look at what the Encyclopedia Britannica (15th edition) has to say, because a) It is a good place to begin, b) they list sources, c) the articles are well written, and d) I feel relatively confident that the articles are unprejudiced and unbiased, which is not always the case with Wikipedia (though I am also a fan of Wiki) because in Wiki, devotées or disciples can write entries about their favorite person, book or battlefield. How do I know this? Because my devoted son wrote the Wiki entry for yours truly.
So I went over to the encyclopedia shelf to find the final volume (V to Z), and ..... it was not there.
The row of tomes ended with Volume 18, Taylor to Utah. I have searched high and low, in all the places where an encyclopedia might find itself (attic, wine cellar, under the bed, laundry basket, next to the observation hive) and others spots less likely, and I have not found it.
CSB has been enlisted to the cause, he too has sought the errant volume, in places too vertiginous for me, and also in vain.
We are flummoxed and bamboozled. We are at a loss and at sea. How can a single volume of the encyclopedia be missing? And no, I would not have loaned it to someone. I am not that sort of person.
It’s not just the salient facts about Herbert George Wells that are missing. That is bad enough, but the true state of affairs is far worse. We are also missing the Vatican, venereal diseases, verdigris and volcanoes. We are lost without wages, Wales, wallpaper, Walloon literature, Whig, wig and writ. Where are Xanthippe and x-rays? We are desolate without yachting, yak, yeomanry and Yiddish. But worst of all, we have nowhere to turn for Zacatecas, Zend-Avesta and Zero.
If you have seen this final volume of the Britannica, Vacuum to Zygote, please tell me where it is. There will be a reward: I will share with you everything I learn about H.G. Wells.

Why H.G.?
Wells is best known for his science fiction,and I don’t even like science fiction. I have tried to like it, or at least read it, because I am closely related to some benighted souls who really like sci-fi; but I have never succeeded. So why am I doing this?

Because my paternal grandmother (mentioned most recently in this blog in the tale of the mystery picture that turned out to be the Summer Institute for Social Progress) was passionate about H.G. Wells. At the time of her death she owned no less than 36 of his books, all showing the wear of multiple readings and bearing her tiny marginalia.
From the early 1930’s, when she and my grandfather separated (exact date unknown or untold), until the early 1960’s when she made the Vendôme Hotel on Commonwealth Ave in Boston her permanent residence, my grandmother traveled: she crossed the continent by trains, she crossed the ocean by ships and she crossed back, again and again. I know this because in the parental basement I found the ships’ manifests, from the S.S. President Coolidge, the S.S. Bremen, the S.S. Lapland, the S.S. Empress of Britain, the R.M.S. Caronia, the T.S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, the Triple-Screw Pennland and so and on; I found a stack of menus from the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (“Scenic Line of the World”); and I found her Intourist’s Pocket Guide to the Soviet Union and her 1933 receipt from the Hotel Astoria in Leningrad. I don’t know what she did when she got to Leningrad or Göteborg or Helsinki or Naples; all I know is that she read H.G. Wells repeatedly, as well as Theosophical tracts and Numerology books and books by Krishnamurti and Tagore, Rudolph Steiner and Oliver Schreiner.
So I will be tackling H.G. Wells, with trepidation. Aside from the unfortunate science fiction, many of his books have titles that make me nervous, titles that more than hint of a message, or even worse, a moral. Titles such as Will Socialism Destroy the Home? or God the Invisible King or Socialism and the Scientific Motive or Crux Ansata – An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church or The Outlook for Homo Sapiens or A Year of Prophesying. You get the picture.
Having written the above, I have started with a very short book (98 pages) with the benign title of The Croquet Player. And I was encouraged to find the following sentence: “There were one or two sets of niceish people with whom a little light conversation was possible without entanglement.” And also delighted to read that the vicar, a key character in the story, presides over the church of Cross in Slackness.
Then I went to Crux Ansata, which, I am sorry to report, is the kind of diatribe that makes me want to actually defend the papacy and sale of indulgences.
I think my next effort will be First and Last Things.

It seems I am missing more than the final volume of the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.


Anne said...

When I think 'H.G. Wells' I think 'The Door in the Wall." (

ps thank you for recommending 'Our Man in Havana." So enjoyed re-reading it after many years--not to mention the introduction to the new paperback edition by Christopher Hitchens. Beautifully written, and such a pointed critique of 'secret intelligence' that applies as much to our own time as to the cold war.

LSS riverrun said...

I mistakenly thought I'd found it for you. encyclopedia britannica? yes! 15th edition? yes! volume 19? yes! Alas, volume 19 of the macropedia Extretion through Geometry.
But what I did find is this: the occasional volume goes missing at an awesome rate. On Amer. Book Exchange you can pick up assorted odd volumes of the 15th edition for a couple of bucks. Too bad you didn't need vol 22 Islam to Life, or vol18 Education - Evolution,vol 16 Rubins - Somalia, vol 4 delusion - frescan, vol 7 Knasnokamsk-mendara, or vol 15 sold, appropriately enough, by BumbleBee Books. There are more. Lots more. I only looked through the first 180. If you don't locate your very own version, brose the next 100 or so odd volumes listed on ABE. Best of luck re-possessing those last crucial few letters of the alphabet!

LSS riverrun said...

(those are typos, not accidental spelling errors.)

Christine Lehner said...

LSS of riverrun - You are the best! Thanks for the words of wisdom and I will keep you posted.