Reading Backwards

Reading Backwards

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Reading Backwards is John Crowley’s first collection of non-fiction since In Other Words was published in 2007. Like its predecessor, this new book reflects an astonishing range of interests, both literary and otherwise. Like its predecessor, it is a book that no John Crowley fan can afford to miss.

The volume opens with the autobiographical “My Life in the Theater,” a memoir of the younger Crowley’s earliest ambitions, and closes with the moving and memorable “Practicing the Arts of Peace.” In between, the author offers us more than thirty carefully crafted essays, each one notable for its insight, intelligence and typically graceful prose.

The opening section, A Voice from the Easy Chair, reflects Crowley’s tenure as Easy Chair columnist for Harper’s Magazine. Subjects include life under the once omni-present threat of the Selective Service Board, the enduring personal importance of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and thoughts on what it means to be truly well read. The second section, Fictional Voices, is filled with acute commentary on a wide range of books and writers, among them SF masters such as Paul Park, Ursula K. Le Guin and Thomas Disch; the important, if neglected, historical novelist David Stacton (a model for the fictional Ffellowes Kraft of the Ægypt novels); classic science fiction novels of the 1950s, and much, much more. The final section, Looking Outward, Looking In, ranges freely across a wide variety of subjects and ideas, such as UFO literature, the utopian architecture of Norman Bel Geddes, the life and career of renowned theosophist Helena Blavatsky, and the nature of time.

Reading Backwards is a book that can be read from beginning to end with enormous pleasure. It can also be read and enjoyed in whatever order the reader prefers. However it’s read, it’s a multifarious source of entertainment, illumination, and thought, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the intellectual life of one of the finest novelists of our time.

Limited: 750 signed numbered hardcover copies

Lettered: 26 signed leatherbound copies, housed in a custom traycase

From Publishers Weekly:

“Crowley, best known for his fantasy fiction (Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr), shows his colors as an insightful critic in this collection of 39 essays and book reviews… This book makes a fine companion volume to Crowley’s previous essay collection, In Other Words (2007), and it will likely send its readers to investigate more of the books and subjects it covers.”

From Locus:

“Crowley has always straddled the worlds of, on the one hand, the Yale Review and Harper’s (where several of these pieces originally appeared) and, on the other, fantasy and SF, and while there are appreciative pieces on Ursula K. Le Guin, Paul Park, Thomas M. Disch, H.G. Wells, and Joan Aiken, there are also plenty of names likely unfamiliar to most readers… [Crowley’s] own insights into his world of reading are likely to stick around, and, as always, his prose is almost preternaturally graceful and clear.”


“Jump in; dart out; flip around; set the book aside; take breaks; read, as the book’s title suggests, out of order. You’ll find that Reading Backwards provides months of enjoyment.”

From The Times Literary Supplement:

“Crowley’s non-fiction shares the amiable voice, observant detail and compassionate vision of his fiction. Some of the elegant and substantial essays in Reading Backwards discuss the art of writing, a subject that he taught for many years at Yale University. Others are portraits of artists he admires, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Nicholson Baker, Rosamond Purcell, Richard Hughes, Ben Katchor, Joan Aiken, David Stacton and Edward Gorey. Several focus on the eccentric enthusiasts and imaginative speculations that captivate Crowley without ensnaring him, including Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy, UFOlogists and ghost stories.”


Table of Contents:


Prologue: My Life in the Theater 1910—1960

Section One: A Voice from the Easy Chair

  • Everything that Rises
  • Dressed to Kill
  • Rule, Britannica
  • A Ring-Formed World
  • Universal Use
  • Spare the Darling
  • On Not Being Well-Read
  • Selective Service
  • An Artist of the Sleeping World

Section Two: Fictional Voices

  • A Postcard from Ursula
  • Paul Park’s Hidden Worlds
  • Life Work: The Fiction of Nicholson Baker
  • Leslie Epstein’s Uproars
  • Ben Katchor’s Cardboard Suitcase
  • Remembering Thomas Disch
  • Joan Aiken and the Wolves of Willoughby Chase
  • David Stacton and the Judges of the Secret Court
  • The Hero of a Thousand Dreams
  • Little Criminals: The Fiction of Richard Hughes
  • Richard Hughes: In Hazard
  • Born to be Posthumous
  • The Whole Household of Man
  • Blossom and Fade: Herman Hesse and The Glass Bead Game
  • Nine Classic Science Fiction novels of the 1950s

Section Three: Looking Outward, Looking In

  • The Man who Invented the 20th Century
  • Stranger Things: UFOs and Life on the Moon
  • Metamorphosis: Rosamond Purcell’s Natural History
  • Unrealism
  • Madame and the Masters
  • The Ones Who Walk Away from Metropolis
  • A Few Moments in Eternity
  • Works of Mercy
  • The Next Future/Totalitopia
  • A Well Without a Bottom
  • New Ghosts and How to Know Them
  • Time After Time
  • Squeak and Gibber
  • Practicing the Arts of Peace


John Crowley
464 pages
United States
In Print