Short Shrift by David Langford
There's a story of an obsessive hoarder whose all too many treasured cardboard boxes included one labelled Pieces of String Too Short to Use. For a long time this was the working title of my planned collection of reviews and oddments judged too short for inclusion in Up Through an Empty House of Stars (2003; 2016 ebook) and the other Langford nonfiction compilations that followed; but somehow it didn't seem sufficiently alluring. Although All My Little Ones had a certain tempting appeal, this was used by Gavin Ewart in 1978 for a book of his very short poems. Short Shrift, despite being a short and snappy character in Norton Juster's classic The Phantom Tollbooth (1962), is at least short and snappy.
At this collection's heart of darkness are two huge tranches of brief book notices written for SFX magazine and for Amazon.co.uk (in the days before Amazon realized they could acquire reviews of a sort without paying professional writers). The SFX material runs to well over 150 items, a third of them written in the magazine's launch year of 1995 when the editors were presumably desperate for contributors; this gig ended in 2011 when I found myself so overloaded with SF Encyclopedia work that I could no longer face badgering SFX for review commissions. For Amazon.co.uk I wrote over 330 commissioned reviews from 1998 to 2005, plus a handful of more general articles (mostly ephemeral news reports on current awards); Short Shrift includes most of the Amazoniana, though not the news updates nor the occasional book reports that now seem content-free or merely echo what I wrote at greater length for SFX. Also included here are my pieces (1999-current) for the "Curiosities" feature in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and the previously uncollected (see Afterword) "Random Reading" columns contributed since 2002 to The New York Review of Science Fiction. In all there are over 650 items. Several of these are multi-book review roundups, bringing the total of actual titles covered to more than 800: see Index of Titles.
Also included are several not-so-short reviews which I perhaps wisely failed to discover while compiling earlier collections. Some were written for swiftly cancelled magazines like Omni UK; for this and other reasons, several have never been published until now. Despite the siren song of completism, I unilaterally decided to spare readers such timeless joys as my 1985 assessments of books on Commodore home computers. Titles like Filing Systems and Databases for the CBM64 and The CBM64 ROMs Revealed can still evoke a heady sense of catatonia.
Short Shrift begins in 1976 (not very well, I'm afraid, but I like to think I improved) and continues through every year to 2017. That's a lot of years and a lot of reviews. But at least they're short, if rarely with the embarrassingly haiku-like minimalism that was obligatory for review roundups in The Guardian (1994-1995) and still more so in The Sunday Telegraph magazine (2012-2013). These should probably have stayed on hold for a further book to be tentatively titled Pieces of String Too Short for the Box of Pieces of String Too Short to Use – but have been slipped in here as Appendix 1 and Appendix 2.
For the sake of sanity, please don't try to read this 262,000-word monster all at once.