In a kind of circuitous return to their beginnings, several of my erstwhile volumes of essays can be read here the way they started out, as sheaves of separate articles (“pieces” as they were always called when I was an apprentice) that were once collected into books. Back at the start, I planted pieces at random in the London newspapers and magazines; but soon, with a book in prospect, I became more calculating about it; and even today, assembling books out of carefully distributed future chapters is one of my favourite ways to work. Even As We Speak (Picador, 2001), still in print, strikes its author as a recent publication, and its successor, The Meaning of Recognition, has been out in paperback only since late 2006. But by now some of those non-fiction books have reached the end of their march and dispersed. To put it less romantically, they have gone out of print. The Metropolitan Critic, At the Pillars of Hercules, From the Land of Shadows, Snakecharmers in Texas, The Dreaming Swimmer — their brave titles shone from the Picador spinners for a gratifying length of time, but in the end their ranks had to be thinned, lest the bookshop proprietors, confused by the problem of which books to order, solved it by ordering none at all.
Sufficiently pleased to have had collections of literary essays published in the first place, I tried to accept their disappearance without too great a show of distress. Some of the articles that had been reprinted in the withdrawn books have been reprinted yet again in such “best of” collections as Reliable Essays (London, Picador, 2001) and As Of This Writing (New York, Norton, 2004). Inevitably however, quite a lot of pieces went missing, and since I was always fond of them in the first place, I now find myself in the position of believing that the world should not be thus arbitrarily deprived of what I consider to be amongst the most cogent of my early work in prose. I could be terrifically wrong about that assessment, but I would prefer to give readers the chance to judge for themselves, rather than just to accept the natural wastage of time as a verdict beyond appeal.
My novels and books of autobiography are either still in print or else easily available second-hand. But even in paperback form, my books of literary journalism don’t come on the second-hand market all that frequently. I would like to think that this is because they are jealously kept, but perhaps they have just disintegrated, like the expository audio tapes in those episodes of Mission Impossible that were already in re-runs before Tom Cruise acquired his first short pair of long pants. Either way, I lack the largeness of heart to contemplate their loss with equanimity. To begin at the beginning, the first sequence of pieces has been retrieved from my very first book, The Metropolitan Critic. Their dates of first publication are supplied, as a reminder that they were written once upon a time, and not just yesterday. They were written when things were different, and one of the things that were different was the writer, who had no idea that he would come this far, and still be here. By its nature, a website is as timeless as a space station; but for that very reason, it should have a sense of history; and a personal website without a sense of personal history would be a claim to have been born wise. If only.