Can a Great Book Vanish?

In Cultural Amnesia, Clive James tells the story of Pavel Muratov, a Russian art critic who had to escape from the revolutionary Russia that had no place for intellectuals. The Spanish fascists’ slogan “Death to intelligence!” wasn’t original. Russian revolutionaries had discovered it long before.

James is a great admirer of Muratov’s magnum opus The Forms of Italy (Obrazy Italii) and is saddened by the idea that the book has been completely forgotten:

CAN A GREAT book vanish? The fate of Paul Maratov’s Obrazy italii (which I prefer to translate as The Forms of Italy, exercising my prerogative as one of the few people alive who have ever picked up a copy of it) suggests that it can. The book is seldom mentioned now, and the name of its author does not crop up often even in histories of the Russian emigration after 1917

The history of humanism in the twentieth century has managed to bury Obrazy italii, and nobody cares. Our idea that if a book is good enough it can never disappear is thereby proved false, because Obrazy italii is one of the most dazzling books of its type ever written. Can something so wonderful be allowed to vanish? Muratov himself was probably reconciled to the possibility.

Clive James was wrong, though. He didn’t count on the great powers of Google Playbooks, which does compensate us somewhat for everything that Google takes away. Playbooks has 5 different editions of Muratov’s book. All recent, all complete, and all very affordable.

It turns out that a great book can’t vanish, after all.

I took a peek at Muratov’s text, and yes, it’s as dazzling as Clive James says. No, there’s no English translation but I’ll tell you all about the book.

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