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In Brief

NONFICTION : THE GENIUS OF WRITERS: A Treasury of Facts, Anecdotes and Comparisons by Jack Hodges (St. Martin's: $24; 434 pp.)

August 21, 1994|DICK RORABACK

It's an engaging, old-fashioned picture. A retired teacher putters among his beloved books. A lifelong collector--beginning with Dowden's two-volume "Life of Shelley" in "sumptuous inlaid morocco by Rivier" that cost more than a month's salary--Jack Hodges contemplates a personal encyclopedia, a "treasury" if you will. What goes with what? Who with whom? Which of the masters will be included among "the virtuosos who sounded the Latin chords, and struck the notes of Anglo-Saxon for simplicity and strength"? In the end, he makes the sort of selection of traits, habits and talents one would expect from a former English prep-school instructor for whom the giants of literature remain as tangible as today's breakfast kippers, a selection at once erudite, eclectic, elastic and off-center: Ruskin, who brought his mother along to college, and Byron, who brought his mistress, a boxing master and a pet bear. Ian MacKay, whose railroad-engineer father once sneezed his false teeth out of the train and into a lake, and who "died of a strange encounter with a haystack," and Thomas Chatterton, "the poor posthumous child of a dissipated Bristol choir-singer." DuMaurier worked in a garden shed, Shaw in railroad carriages, Thackeray in a tavern and Coleridge composed the haunting "Kubla Khan" after taking two grains of opium, reading from "Purchas His Pilgrimage" and sleeping deeply for three hours.

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