Reading Backwards by John Crowley
Hardcover – Subterranean Press – Nov 2019 – 455 pages
Reading Backwards is John Crowley’s first collection of non-fiction since In Other Words was published in 2007. Like its predecessor, this new book reflects an astonishing range of interests, both literary and otherwise. Like its predecessor, it is a book that no John Crowley fan can afford to miss.
The volume opens with the autobiographical “My Life in the Theater,” a memoir of the younger Crowley’s earliest ambitions, and closes with the moving and memorable “Practicing the Arts of Peace.” In between, the author offers us more than thirty carefully crafted essays, each one notable for its insight, intelligence and typically graceful prose.
The opening section, A Voice from the Easy Chair, reflects Crowley’s tenure as Easy Chair columnist for Harper’s Magazine. Subjects include life under the once omni-present threat of the Selective Service Board, the enduring personal importance of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and thoughts on what it means to be truly well read. The second section, Fictional Voices, is filled with acute commentary on a wide range of books and writers, among them SF masters such as Paul Park, Ursula K. Le Guin and Thomas Disch; the important, if neglected, historical novelist David Stacton (a model for the fictional Ffellowes Kraft of the Ægypt novels); classic science fiction novels of the 1950s, and much, much more. The final section, Looking Outward, Looking In, ranges freely across a wide variety of subjects and ideas, such as UFO literature, the utopian architecture of Norman Bel Geddes, the life and career of renowned theosophist Helena Blavatsky, and the nature of time.
Reading Backwards is a book that can be read from beginning to end with enormous pleasure. It can also be read and enjoyed in whatever order the reader prefers. However it’s read, it’s a multifarious source of entertainment, illumination, and thought, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the intellectual life of one of the finest novelists of our time.