Books: Liking the English ; This Long-Awaited Labour of Love Is Eccentric, Wide-Ranging, Scholarly and Wonderfully Unstuffy, Says Christopher Wood

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The Book of Prefaces

By Alasdair Gray

BLOOMSBURY pounds 35

In the biographical blurb to one of Alasdair Gray's books, the author of "Why Scots Should Rule Scotland" slyly lists as a hobby "liking the English". He could also have mentioned a long love affair with the English language, which reaches its apotheosis in this Book of Prefaces.

Of Gray's exhaustive knowledge of the Eng Lit canon - garnered during long periods in Glasgow's public libraries - there has never been any doubt. One of the recurrent features of a Gray tome comes towards the end when modesty (or exhibitionism) compels him to list the sources from which he has nicked stuff. This reached a hightide of sophistication early on when in Lanark he defined three different types of plagiarism of which he was guilty; and very impressive ones they were too, ranging from ancient Chinese literature to a James Kelman short story.

Now some of the literature Gray loves is allowed to speak in its own words, although anyone expecting an Oxford-style reference work doesn't know their Alasdair Gray. In spite of the fascinating compendium here assembled - from Caedmon's 7th-century poetry to Wilfred Owen's in the 20th (most 20th-century literature is excluded owing to copyright costs) - this is very much an Alasdair Gray production. As ever, lavish attention is paid to the book as artefact, adorned as all Gray's volumes are with his own allegorical drawings. Gray has persuaded his publishers to pay for two ink colours, black for the texts and red for explanatory glosses which run down the margins. It is a beautiful volume, its design reminiscent of a book of holy scripture - not by accident one feels.

The glosses, although authored by some 30 hands, have the authentic Gray touch ("I admit to having tampered a little with some of their contributions," he understates). They are breezy, lucid, easily understood and thoroughly tendentious (another Gray hobby is "socialism"). They display certain typographic eccentricities ("Bacon was 1 of the 1st to see how experimental science would change the world & urge a government to assist it for the public good") and typify the whimsicality which Gray's fans love, and his detractors presumably don't.

The inspiration for the whole enterprise, although a real enough historical figure, somehow contributes to the topography one recognises as Grayland. …