Masterplots  Vol. 5Masterplots Vol. 5 by Frank Magill

Good for a walk through the old and moldy canon. Besides the expected homages paid to a lineup of literary geniuses (mostly men), there’s a light dusting of lady writers. Here’s what the author had to say about Mary Shelley:

“FRANKENSTEIN: or, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS is a weird tale, a wholly incredible story told with little skill. Although not often read now [this edition was published in 1964], it is known very widely by name. The endurance of this Gothic romance depends on perhaps two factors. First, Mary Shelley would be remembered if she had written nothing, for she was the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley under romantic and scandalous circumstances. Indeed, FRANKENSTEIN was written as a result of a conversation between Byron and the Shelleys. Second, the idea of creating a monster has wide appeal. FRANKENSTEIN has become part of the popular imagination.”

The editor, Frank N. Magill, did enjoy GONE WITH THE WIND, though:

“The unprecedented success of Margaret Mitchell’s only novel may be attributed to a combination of the author’s style—a sustained narrative power combined with remarkable character delineation—and the universality of her subject, the struggle for survival when the accustomed security of civilized life is abruptly swept away and the human spirit suddenly stands alone. In spite of the fast-moving narrative, one is aware of this underlying thread of universality, this familiarity with human tragedy that all men can understand.”

Fifty-five years after the publication of this series, those two assessments could be swapped with a little editing: Mary Shelley’s exploration of the creation, abandonment, and suffering of the Other; Margaret Mitchell’s ham-fisted depictions of love, duty, and dignity. There’s a college thesis in there somewhere.

I bought this set several years back and page through the critiques every now and then to remind myself that public sentiment changes. Once books are out of their authors’ hands, anything can happen. For all the careful crafting and thorough vetting we do to coax wonderful books into being, we have no say over how they’ll be received fifty years from now.

Worst comes to worst, though, even if the stories don’t stand up, the books can still transport us. This 15-volume set smells so good that I think the old books it’s dedicated to are multiplying the old-book aroma exponentially. So even though these reviews are peculiar and outdated, I’ll keep coming close enough to breathe them in.

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