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An Evening of Literary Revival

Traveling Show Rescues Books from Obscurity

For every literary lion whose fame has survived for centuries, scores of no-lesser talents have been consigned to obscurity by poor marketing, offbeat sensibilities or the simple vagaries of fate. This injustice will be put partly right on Friday, June 14, when The Booksmith (1644 Haight St.) hosts an Evening of Literary Revival, the second stop on a book tour of sorts which features contemporary writers reading from their favorite forgotten and out-of-print books.

Readers will include Michelle Richmond, author of The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress; Wendy Lesser, founder of The Threepenny Review; McSweeney's contributor Ann Cummins; Lewis Buzbee, author of Fliegelman's Desire; Christina Boufis, co-editor of On The Market; and Paul Collins, whose recent book, Banvard's Folly, recounts the sad fates of thirteen of history's most profoundly ambitious failures.

As the tour's organizer, Collins is on a mission to raise the literary dead. He recently launched the Collins Library, a series of previously out-of-print oddities being produced by McSweeney's Books (the publishing arm of the not-so-obscure literary quarterly McSweeney's). The inaugural volume, English as She is Spoke, is a 150-year-old English phrasebook composed by a pair of Portuguese natives who used as their only sources a set of Portuguese-to-French and French-to-English dictionaries. The incomprehensible result inspired Mark Twain to marvel, "Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book ... it is perfect."

Collins traces his passion for the remaindered works of yesteryear back to his childhood, when his parents often gave him the books that came with antiques they acquired at estate sales. Eventually, he had he amassed a random assortment of 19th- and early 20th-century books that included medical texts, geology surveys and pulp novels.

Nowadays, the former San Franciscan (currently based in Oregon) occasionally forages for finds at The Booksmith and Green Apple Books, but it's the basement of UCSF that holds him in its thrall. "The basement is where all the old and discredited medical texts eventually sink to," Collins says. "There's some really weird stuff down there, very Road to Wellville-type books on electric lightbulb therapy, whirlpool therapies, milk diets, quack radiation treatments, you name it."

Snippets from Collins's collection can be viewed on his Web site, www.collinslibrary.com. The daily offerings are diverse -- topics range from the sewers of Victorian London to perfumed gloves -- but they all share the common fate of having lain in almost complete obscurity for years. "Obscurity is the way of the world," observes Collins. "But I like to do my little bit to change that. There's a certain thrill to discovering something fabulous that no one else seems to know about -- that opening-King-Tut's-tomb sensation."

Collins himself will enjoy just this thrill when he listens to the writers scheduled to join him at The Booksmith, since he's opted to have no say in his fellow readers' selections. "I haven't a clue what will be read," he says. "If they ask me what kind of book to bring, I shrug. So the readings are all over the map, which is what I love about it."

The tour kicked off last March in Manhattan, with readings by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell (who read from a history of Vidal Sassoon's influence on postwar culture), Ben Greenman and Caleb Crain. If all goes well, it will continue on to Seattle and become an annual fixture in Manhattan and San Francisco. Collins's ultimate hope is that the tour and the book series will serve as a catalyst to interest other publishers in rescuing worthy books from obscurity.

In the meantime, the revivals will serve a more immediate mission: Collins intends to link each one with a charitable tie-in that will spread the good word of literature where the need is most dire. At the San Francisco event, attendees will be encouraged to buy children's books to be donated to REST, a program that enables women prisoners in the San Francisco County Jail to read with their children.

"A lot of authors don't relish selling themselves at readings, and the great thing about the revivals is that, in a way, it's not about the participants," explains Collins. "We're reviving other people's work, and raising money for someone else's cause."

An Evening of Literary Revival
The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., SF, 415.863.8688
Friday, June 14 @ 7 pm