Michael Chabon has been carrying on a love affair, openly and in public, for several decades. The object of his affection is the English language, which has tantalized and haunted him since he was a kid. As a young man, Chabon came to realize that he and language “seemed to have something going.” He can recall his first encounters with certain words, his early affinity for puns, the way a favorite book seems to arrive at the perfect moment.

Glimpsing Chabon’s evolution as both reader and writer is one of many pleasures to be found in his latest offering, “Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros.”

As the title suggests, this niche volume centers on prefaces and afterwords that Chabon has written largely for the books of others. Among the 17 titles he introduces are Lewis Hyde’s “Trickster Makes This World,” “The Escapists” by Brian K. Vaughan and “Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories,” by M.R. James. These provide a sampling of the genres — cartoons and comics, sci fi, horror, myth, heroic fantasy — that have long captivated Chabon as a reader, and that hint at his writerly DNA. So, too, his intros often double as thoughtful critiques.

What the book’s title doesn’t reveal is that these are entrees into the world of geekdom —  the author as fanboy, rhapsodizing over his idols. Frankly, a book that celebrates other books requires a certain amount of fawning. Chabon may hope to please the reader with his intros, but his real job is to serve an appetizer for the meal ahead. As always, his prose is deliciously exuberant.

Nowhere is this more apparent than his tribute to author Ray Bradbury. In his intro to “The Rocket Man,” Chabon declares the Bradbury piece “the most important short story in my life as a writer.” He proceeds to describe a scene where butterflies get trapped and die in the grille of a car, and its visceral effect on him.

“All at once, the pleasure I took in reading was altered irrevocably,” Chabon says. “Before now I had never noticed, somehow, that stories were made not of ideas or exciting twists of plot but of language. And not merely of pretty words and neat turns of phrase, but of systems of imagery, strategies of metaphor.”

Nor is Chabon’s effusiveness reserved solely for praise of others; he introduces his own books, as well. Included are the prefaces from several Chabon works, one of them a failed novel, “Fountain City,” that weighed in at 1,500 pages. Since nothing so instructs like failure, Chabon gleaned a host of lessons that he cheekily conveys. He learned to write books on a smaller scale, trust his instincts and sell only completed work. Of course, he also violated those rules, which, in the case of his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay,” led to a Pulitzer Prize.

Rounding out this collection, Chabon includes liner notes for two music albums, plus an intro he wrote for the cookbook, “Brown Sugar Kitchen” by Tanya Holland, which is basically a shout-out to Oakland, California.

On balance, “Bookends” is an eclectic gathering of pieces that highlight the diverse tastes and interests of one of our nation’s — and Maine’s — great authors. It’s also a lovely, quirky if, at times, esoteric, hodgepodge of essays. Accordingly the natural readers for this book are true devotees of Chabon’s work. Either way, this is an array of mash notes to various authors from a most eloquent book lover.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

 


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