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Book Review: Bibliotopia

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Book nerds—make that bibliophiles—take note: Steven Gilbar is a man after your own hearts. Bibliotopia or, Mr. Gilbar’s Book of Books & Catch-all of Literary Facts & Curiosities is a labor of love (or, perhaps, obsession); part chrestomathy (a collection of choice literary passages), part enchiridion (a book carried in the hand for reference)—it is a true panegyric (a written tribute) to all things literary.

Gilbar’s book is a hodge-podge of lists, glossaries and literary miscellanea compiled for bookworms (or putative ones) in the hope that “as long as such friends of the book exist, literature will continue to flourish and have authority.” Wholly lacking an internal logic, Bibliotopia is designed not for the researcher but for the pleasure-seeker, anyone looking to be “amused, edified, surprised, or all three at once.”

Gilbar has assembled a dizzying array of facts, ranging from the crucial to the arcane with a whole lot in between. For example, we can learn what university James Thurber attended (Ohio State), who the U.S. poet laureate was in 1989 (Howard Nemerov) and who the first writer to use a typewriter was (Mark Twain). Bibliotopia lists the recent winners of every major literary prize in the world, catalogs every film ever based on Stephen King’s writing (43 in all) and enumerates not only the Dewey Decimal System, but the Library of Congress classification system as well.

There are pronunciation guides to the names of famous (and not-so-famous) writers, a list of well known writer couples and an exhaustive guide to the given names of pseudonymous writers and the full names of authors with a little something to hide. It is not at all surprising that Hiram F. Moody III, author of The Ice Storm, prefers to go by Rick Moody. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford (yes, Anthony). Bibliotopia also offers a fascinating insight into the possible role severe schoolyard beatings play in creating great authors when one considers the thrashings that must have been administered to literati such as John Ronald Reul Tolkien, Wystan Hugh Auden, Elwyn Brooks White and Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. Thank god for initials, indeed!

This book also contains numerous glossaries ranging from terms about books and publishing, foreign-language literary terms and the stranger side of the literary lexicon. Take this sentence, for instance: The poetaster was a sesquipedalian hack whose attempt at an epithalaminium resulted in an amphigory instead. Wonder what this means? If not, Bibliotopia is probably not for you. For those who do care, a translation: The inferior poet was a bad writer prone to using long words whose attempt at a wedding poem resulted in a poem that makes no sense instead.

For the more morbid-minded readers, Gilbar has listed prominent literary suicides, writers who tragically died in their 20s and 30s—there’s even a list of literary figures who possibly suffered from bipolar disorder.

Every so often, Bibliotopia dredges up a fact that is truly worthy of the book’s title. For example, the word “stereotype” started as a printing term, referring to a metal printing plate with reusable words or phrases on it. “Cliche” is a French onomatopoeia, imitative of a sound heard when making a stereotype plate. Another interesting tidbit is the story of the Modern Library publishing house that was founded in 1912 to reprint literary classics. In the late 1920s, they decided to start publishing “random” books that didn’t fit in to the Modern Library catalog. They named this imprint Random House, which went on to huge success and replaced Modern Library as the flagship imprint of the company.

While much of the content of this book would fall under the rubric of “data,” there are plenty of interesting surprises as well. One such surprise is a list of sixteen phrases that originate in Cervantes’s Don Quixote; phrases that are so commonplace it is hard to imagine them even having an origin, let alone in a single novel. These phrases include “wild goose chase,” “mind your own business,” “the pot calling the kettle black,” the sky’s the limit,” “turning over a new leaf” and “honesty is the best policy.”

Bibliotopia is designed with the serious book lover in mind, but there’s plenty to entertain the novice reader as well. Perhaps most interesting to such readers will be the famous opening and closing lines from novels and the multiple lists of witty and pithy remarks from authors such as Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, H.L. Mencken and George Bernard Shaw. One hopes that Bibliotopia finds an audience not only of readers who have reached the literary promised land, but those who are willing to start the journey as well.

(parenthetical remarks)

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  • Wonderful. I found myself “amused, edified, surprised” and “all three at once” by your review.

  • -E

    I have to admit, rarely do I read about a book on here and actually want to go buy it. But this one sounds like a blast, in a completely dorky kind of way. Thanks for sharing this review 🙂

  • Abosolutly wonderful…this sounds like a must have for all of us seriously obsessive when it comes to books and trivia pertaining to them. Thank you for pointing this one out… I must own.


  • Nancy

    Gotta get three of these: one for me, and two for Xmas gifts! Thanks for the heads-up on a nifty book!