Maybe it starts with being a bookhound: from a young age I grew up in a house piled high with books, the collection of my college professor father and classical musician mother. It’s no surprise that the collecting bug bit me early, and books are a natural item to accumulate: they’re mostly cheap; they can be status symbols, external signs of one’s intellectual achievement (unlike, say, comic books, which I have also collected, but which even now seem to demand a certain amount of explanation to the uninitiated); and they provide more entertainment or useful information for their price and weight than almost anything else. I was accustomed to having old things around from a young age, so that didn’t bother me either. As much as I enjoy brand new books and the big, luxurious bookstores that have (mostly) disappeared from the landscape, used bookstores and book sales are more interesting to me, because of that chance of being surprised by something rare, weird, or simply new to me. I like to browse new books to see what’s out there, but I’m rarely moved to buy something I could get anywhere; but for an old, possibly out-of-print book, who knows if I’ll find it again? I could go on about the smell of old books, or the thrill of the hunt, or the prospect of finding something really valuable, but to tell the truth those aren’t really motivating factors for me. (Seriously: for every old book you find that has that ideal scent of rich, old paper, there’s another one that smells of mildew or cigarette smoke. Gross.)
No, what fascinates me the most when scouring stacks of old books is the chance to fill in gaps in my knowledge, make connections between things I might not expect, and appreciate the many different kinds of publications (the styles of writing, the topics, and genres that were once popular, not to mention trends in printing, binding, and cover art) that can open windows to the past.
In many ways, a good anthology can offer the same pleasures in microcosm. Reading a collection of stories or articles by a good editor is like being guided through a used book market by an expert hand, someone who knows where the good stuff is hidden, and is ideally a sympathetic soul able to handpick just the sort of thing you’re looking for. Such a guide can offer a balanced combination of the familiar but well-loved, a few new items that continue in a straight line from where the familiar leaves off, and maybe something really mind-bending or challenging, something you didn’t know you needed to read until you found it.
If you read enough, the name of the editor alone might be enough to pique your interest, and these come in several flavors: many of the editors whose names I learned were publishing-industry lifers like Peter Haining and Martin H. Greenberg (compiler of an astounding 1,298 anthologies!). Sometimes the editor is a well-known writer in their own right, their choices reflecting their influences, early favorites that inspired their own writing or informed their stylistic choices. The book might be a chance to promote their friends’ work or expose readers to like-minded authors who are part of the same scene as the editor but not as widely known. Or it could be an opportunity for the established writer to shine a light on up and coming talent, putting their seal of approval on the young writers’ work.
Sometimes, however, one gets the impression the famous writer’s name is simply on the cover to sell books, as when they are hired to write a short introduction and the name of the actual (less well-known) editor is in smaller type. If the word “presents” is in the title, chances are the famous author is a figurehead (as in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, a series Hubbard never actually edited and that has carried on under his name long after his death). I don’t mean to be cynical: it’s the quality of the stories inside that count, and I’ve been known to purchase and keep books with stories I already have copies of for the sake of the insights in the introduction (which are sometimes sizeable essays in their own right).
A subgenre is the anthology of the “best of” the previous year, selections either made from published work (as is the case for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American series), contest winners (the aforementioned L. Ron Hubbard Presents), or editorial fiat. The Best American series has been published continuously since 1915, first as a showcase for short stories, expanded in recent decades to include topics such as mystery stories, sports writing, and even comics (since 2006). One of the most popular titles in the series has been The Best American Nonrequired Reading, edited since its introduction in 2002 by Dave Eggers. Filled with lists, humor, and random nuggets culled from real life (“Best American Lawsuits,” for example), it injects the McSweeney’s founder’s “clever . . . too clever” aesthetic into the hoary old “bathroom reader” format, like Harper’s Index on steroids.
In retrospect, these annual volumes can provide perspective on both the individual authors included in them and the genre (whatever it may be) as a whole. It is interesting, for example, to see the name Stephen Baxter (for the story “Gossamer”) in David G. Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF, a 1996 anthology (and beginning of an ongoing series) published with the goal of supporting actual science fiction (“Not fantasy. Not science fantasy,” according to Hartwell’s introduction). Baxter had garnered praise for his 1995 novel The Time Ships, an authorized sequel to H. G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine, but was as yet a new enough name that Hartwell felt the need to introduce him as a writer “in the hard science mode of Hal Clement and Robert L. Forward.” Since then, he has won numerous awards and collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke; it’s unlikely a science fiction audience would be unfamiliar with him.
In contrast, one can examine volumes of the Best SF series edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss from 1967 to 1975 to see the rising tide of confrontational, psychedelic “New Wave” science fiction championed by J. G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock. Even allowing for the difference in time, no one would confuse this series with Hartwell’s!
One finds connections everywhere: one can read Sam Moskowitz’s biographical sketch of editor Alden H. Norton in the latter’s Award Science Fiction Reader, and immediately turn to Norton’s introduction to his own Horror Times Ten, wherein he recounts,
At lunch with an old friend, Sam Moskowitz, I happened to mention my problem [a paucity of decent horror stories for his planned anthology] and said: “Too bad you’re not an authority on the horror and terror tale as you are on science fiction. If you were, you might be of some help to me.” He choked a moment, wiped some sauce from eggplant parmigiana from his lips with a napkin, swallowed a glass of water, and finally managed to come up: “Oh, but I am!”
Not only did the authors and editors know each other, they could make their readers feel like one of the club by letting them in on these backstage dramas in introductory notes, in the letters pages of magazines, and in the newsletters and fanzines put together by amateur press associations and fan clubs. An anthology could be much more than just the stories!
In Part Two, I’ll look more closely at one of my favorite anthologies, and the legacy of the magazine Weird Tales.