A curious and useful history


What's in a preface? According to a certain William Smellie, a collection of prefaces would provide a fascinating survey of literature and authors. Alasdair Gray took up the challenge. His editor Liz Calder describes the gestation of this book of books, coming from Bloomsbury on Monday</p><p>

Alasdair Gray's favourite restaurant is the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow, where he is currently restoring the extensive murals he first painted in exchange for meals 20 years ago. He drives a hard bargain. In the early 1980s, while I was working at Jonathan Cape, I received an elaborately constructed and decorated box containing much of the typescript for 1982, Janine. I read it with wonder and fascination but, on reaching the end of chapter 12, I found a note from the author, Alasdair Gray, instructing firmly, "If you want chapter 13, send money". Alasdair explained that his Scottish publisher, Canongate, was not very flush at the time and that, while he intended to continue to give them some of his books, he would alternate others with a London publisher, which he has done ever since.</p><p>

Gray's Lanark: A Life in Four Books had made a great impact when Canongate published it in 1981; it was followed by several volumes of short stories, two novellas, the aforementioned 1982, Janine and the Whitbread and Guardian prize-winning Poor Things (Bloomsbury, 1992).</p><p>
Sometime in the late '80s I heard rumblings of an anthology of prefaces that Alasdair was working on, based on the idea of one William Smellie, who had written in 1790 as part of his own preface to The Philosophy of Natural History: "Every preface, besides occasional and explanatory remarks, should contain not only the general design of the work, but the motives and circumstances which led the author to write on that particular subject. If this plan had been universally observed, a collection of prefaces would have exhibited a short, but curious and useful history both of literature and authors."</p><p>
As nobody had ever attempted to take up this challenge, Alasdair Gray decided he would have to do it himself. But he would add to Smellie's scheme extra biographies and historical commentaries as marginal glosses. Thus would we have a concise history of literate thought from England, Scotland, Ireland and the US from the 7th century to the 20th, a book fat with introductions to great books by their own authors.</p><p>
Having worked on the idea for some years, in 1987 Gray received an advance from Canongate and got down to the monumental task of compiling the anthology. He ran into problems at once, finding there was so much more than he had expected to concern him in the early centuries of written English. It took him so long that both he and his publisher ran out of money. It was Bloomsbury's turn to step forward.</p><p>
In 1994, after a launch party for Agnes Owens in Glasgow, I received one of Alasdair's closely hand-written, elaborately Tippexed and sticky-plastered missives. It began: "I woke yesterday morning and asked Morag if we had visited the Ubiquitous Chip after the pub on the previous evening. She said 'No'. Hi ho. Booze and community had defeated food, thoughtful conversation and 'My Word', though I had intended to enjoy all five."</p><p>
The letter continued over four pages to describe the various projects he had in mind, notably "The Anthology of Prefaces", prefaces that he had already partly compiled but that still lacked all the written commentaries, a task he estimated would take him three years, and requesting a not insubstantial sum of money as an advance, which he would like to be paid in monthly instalments, like a wage, but which would include his own design, illustration and typesetting of the projected 700-page volume.</p><p>
We signed on the dotted line. Delivery was to be July 1998.</p><p>
Indeed I received a letter from Alasdair in July 1998 reminding me of an earlier request he had made for two-colour printing throughout the book.</p><p>

Dear Liz,
My work on the above goes well, by which I mean, I have a good list of rich potential sponsors, am confident of help from one or more.
Publisher: More? What more do you want? Why "More" , Gray?
Says Gray: I would love the book to be printed in black with red titles and maybe dates, as in the Songs of Scotland book I sent you last year, which was printed by BPC of Wheatons, Exeter. Can you find out how much more it will cost Bloomsbury to print a book of 672 pages (maximum, it may be 640) with red titles? If your production department tells me soon as possible I will try to raise it. When this Great Book Booms in (the first year of Scotland's new parliament) all shall fall before it. Megalomania rules OK, sincerely, Alasdair

Then another letter arrived in November that year specifying his jacket requirements.</p><p>

Dear Liz,Here is my dustjacket design with instructions for Penny. If you like it (and it is the most Majestic cover I have so far designed) all you need devize, or get devized, is a blurb for the back flap, as encomiastic as you please, but a certain grrrravity should be employed to balance the comparrrrative levity of text on the front flap.I had thought to deliver this design in a week or 10 days. I have taken more than a month to get it right, a month off work upon the text! However, by immense exertion the text should be completed in January. Let's assume the book will be ready for Christmas 1999.
If proofs of this cover were made soon, I would find copies a great help in raising money to allow me time to make lavish interior illustrations, and raising funds to get the glosses and titles printed in red. I keep postponing sending out begging letters because the more I work the more I have to show the folks I plan to beg from. A copy of the jacket in black, gold, red will be persuasive.
Yours truly,
P.S. The order of the portraits on the jacket seems more random than it is:On the spine, An Irishman, Englishwoman, Scott and Yank.On the front, Four women, 2 Scots, 2 Irish, 3 North Americans, 3 homosexuals (counting Bill Shakes and Walt Whit who may have been Platonic.)On the back, Chaucer, Dickens, Dr Johnson, with Lewis Carroll, Karl Marx, John Knox, Isaac Newton, Edgar Allan Poe, Bernard Shaw, Aphra Behn . . . all growths of the same language, but the contrast between them will strike most folk as amusing: hence the ironic author's blurb, and inner decorations and visual variety of the interior typography will seduce the readers in several ways.

This was followed a month later by another.</p><p>

Dear Liz,The dustjackets reached me this morning. The production department and printers have done what I asked with what I gave them and the result will be a good advert for the book: but like all first printings it is improvable, and will, I hope, be improved for the book itself. For instance the white-on-red lettering on front and spine is not as bold from a distance as I hoped, and on spine and back flap the gold does not register perfectly within the black outline given for it. The faults are mine, I can now see how to correct these and will tell Penny how to do so when it will be convenient for her.Two things please me greatly: first, that red type will be used for the glosses and some titles, it will be an abnormally distinguished looking book for that reason on top of others. I have also found a patron in a local pub owner who has given me &pound;8,500 so that I can work solidly till July. And, though this is more trivial, I like it that the book will cost distinct pounds, &pound;35 instead of &pound;14.99.Yours sincerelyAlasdairP.S. I ripped this letter in two thinking it an earlier draft for itself, hence the repair. [In fact both drafts arrived.]

Such has been the eager anticipation for this volume that second-hand editions of "The Anthology of Prefaces" have been confidently listed, with various prices given, in specialist magazines from 1993 onwards. In fact, the book's final pages were only delivered in December 1999. In order to finish in time for publication in 2000, Alasdair had co-opted over 20 of his writer friends to help him complete the Herculean task of writing the commentaries. It is a testament to his persuasive genius that they all obliged, and their portraits now look out from the distinguished and unmistakable Gray gallery at the back of the book. Even so, he wrote 80% of the glosses himself.</p><p>
One of the contributors, Angus Calder, who first introduced me to Alasdair, says that we have in him a Dr Johnson for our time. The Book of Prefaces, as it is now called in order that the typographical fit on the cover should be more pleasing, is a gift from Alasdair to readers of all ages. It is a glorious resource, an eccentric and erudite celebration written and compiled with humour, passion and wisdom. It is one of the most enlightening and generous-spirited books I have had the privilege of publishing.</p><p>
Alasdair Gray ends his Book of Prefaces thus, "I consider this anthology a memorial to the kind of education British governments now think useless, especially for British working-class children. But it has been my education, so I am bound to believe it one of the best in the world."</p><p>
A few years ago, on one of his all-too-rare, boisterous and stimulating visits to my office, Alasdair, perhaps to offer comfort to those of us who were beginning to wonder if this great Book of Books would ever see daylight, quoted Nietzsche at us: "He who has not chaos in his soul shall never give birth to a dancing star." Well, I am happy to report that this dancing star is about to be born.</p><p>
THE BOOK OF PREFACES: A SHORT HISTORY OF LITERATE THOUGHT IN WORDS BY GREAT WRITERS OF FOUR NATIONS FROM THE 7TH TO THE 20TH CENTURY (&pound;35, 0747544433), edited and glossed (mainly) by Alasdair Gray, is published by Bloomsbury on 22nd May.</p><p>