I don’t remember who gave me the fat red book of short stories by H. G. Wells. But I do remember reading it compulsively as a teenager, with frissons of fear as well as pleasure. Wells was a favourite in those days, alongside Somerset Maugham, Conan Doyle and de Maupassant. One day, in a fit of enthusiasm, I lent the book to a friend. It never came back.
Though the stories continued to haunt me, I did nothing about getting another copy. The reason, I suspect, was that I missed the book as much as I did the words and didn’t want to read the stories in any other edition. But from that day I became very stingy about lending books. Can I blame my loss for that? Or is it, more probably, some defect of character which turns a bibliophile into a bibliophiliac?
About a year ago, my wife found me another copy of the lost edition. It was exactly as I remembered it: the red cloth binding, jacketless, with its title in gold lettering on the spine, largish print, and a text devoid of all critical apparatus. It felt, it smelt, just the same. When I opened it, I half expected to find my name inside the cover.
Nostalgia is a dangerous indulgence. My rule is never to go back to places or things I loved in childhood. It can lead only to disappointment. Even worse, reality erases the happy illusions that kind, unreliable memory has stored up for our lifelong entertainment. So the question was whether my recovered omnibus would bear rereading. Would the Wells of memory be poisoned? After all, these 60-odd stories were already more than half a century old when I first read them, and now they were more than a century old.
I climbed on to my time machine, pushed the lever and rode fifty years back into the past to find, with surprise and delight, that Wells’s world was just as I remembered it. He was as good as ever, but now I appreciated him even more.
The first thing to strike me was that Wells the writer, as opposed to Wells the prophet, has hardly dated at
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