Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Art of the Epigraph compiled and edited by Rosemary Ahern

The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin is a collection of those tiny quotes that appear at the beginning of a book, compiled and edited by Rosemary Ahern. In that sense, it is far more like a book of quotations than anything that really delves into the meaning or history of epigraphs, beyond a very short introduction. Based on its title, 'the art', I thought that it would be more than just a collection of epigraphs that the reader could easily discover by flipping open books at the library (or even just through Google). I was actually really excited to pick up Ahern's book, because I am definitely the kind of person that reads every epigraph. I love them. But I didn't love The Art of the Epigraph.

Every few epigraphs does have a paragraph of background information written by Ahern, but what I wanted was more about the books they were featured in, instead of the authors that are being quoted in the first place. Even in the cases when the author who used the epigraph had some information included, the epigraph writer was ignored. What I would have loved would have been to know a little about both so that you could picture the epigraph in context, even if you hadn't read the book. Ahern comes close to this is with The Merchant of Venice quote in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper in which she explains why Twain didn't include Shakespeare's name (he thought that Francis Bacon did). There are only a few times Ahern actually draws the connection, asides from when the epigraph was made up by the author for various reasons.

The times when Ahern does explain the connection thrilled me. One example is the Francois Villon epigraph at the beginning of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood– as both Villon and the subjects of Capote's novel were murderers awaiting execution. Another is how Upanishads, the core of Indian philosophy, inspired Charles Johnson as well as other authors, leading him to use a quote from Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad as a epigraph to his novel Middle Passage. Finally, Tolstoy's biblical quote for Anna Karenina,  "Vengeance is mine, I will repay.", is especially interesting because it is described in his own words, "it express[es] the idea that evil committed by man results in all bitter things that come from God and not from men, as Anna Karenina also experienced it..."

The need for a connection between the epigraph and the text is especially true of the non-classics, as Ahern uses quite a few epigraphs from books published in 2010-2012, and those are less recognizable than the classics the art of the epigraph contains (unless it is a really famous book– but a decent number of, both the recent and the older ones, were not ones I had heard of).  Some of the most interesting bits were facts, not epigraphs, like I didn't know that Moby Dick contained nearly 80 epigraphs... seems a bit ridiculous, but I guess it's proportional to the length of the novel!

Unfortunately, the movies quoted in The Art of the Epigraph aren't referenced properly, it's just a title, when I'd think the screenplay writer deserves some credit. I found it off-putting that Ahern didn't include them.

That said, where the book succeeded was when it made me think back to those novels I had read, and that first moment of opening it and reading the epigraph. One of the most charming ones I remembered from growing up was the J.R.R. Tolkien quote, "Not all who wander are lost." at the beginning of Anne Brashares' The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. My mom had also written the quote at the beginning of a travel journal once, and it made me smile to see it again. 

The Art of the Epigraph was such an instantly appealing idea to me, so interesting in concept but unfortunately the lack of depth meant that Ahern's book was nearly always disappointing, except as a collection of intriguing quotations.

Release Date: October 30th 2012  Pages: 256  Format: E-galley 
Source: NetGalley/Publisher  Publisher: Simon and Schuster Buy It: Book Depository

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments make my day!