The things that make us happy make us wise
January 24, 2023 8:27 AM   Subscribe

Back in 2004, plans were announced for a sumptuous new edition of John Crowley's beloved fantasy novel Little, Big, to be published in 2006 to mark the book's 25th anniversary. Years passed, the project stalled, irate subscribers started demanding their money back. Then in 2021 Neil Gaiman stepped in to rescue the project, and this week it was announced that the first copies have shipped. Gaiman has posted a video of himself unboxing his copy.
posted by verstegan (45 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I am reliably informed that my copy (subscribed to in 2004!) is waiting for me at home. O, as they say, MG.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 9:09 AM on January 24 [6 favorites]

I just got a notification that my copy was shipped. It was bought as a present for me by my then girlfriend, now wife. I am looking forward to finally getting it!
posted by fimbulvetr at 9:22 AM on January 24 [4 favorites]

posted by kyrademon at 9:22 AM on January 24

I have twice attempted to read Little, Big and also the first book in the Ægypt cycle and each time I've bounced off them somewhere in the first third. It should be right in my wheelhouse, it comes pre-approved by Neil Himself! What am I doing wrong, am I just too old to get in the right headspace for modern fairy tales anymore?
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 9:24 AM on January 24 [4 favorites]

Is this a RIYL Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? 'cause I'm getting that vibe, and I really liked JS&MN.
posted by the sobsister at 9:30 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Based on the video, it looks beautiful (though fyi, if you’re just watching for the unboxing, Gaiman doesn’t actually unbox / open the book till after the 3 minute mark).

I have to admit, I’ve read the book twice now and still don’t understand why it’s so beloved (I reread it intentionally because so many people told me I was wrong so I wanted to give it another chance). I’m sure I’ll read it again one of these days - too many people I respect and who love the same books as me adore it, and it ought to be right in my wheelhouse - but this one just escapes me.

But that’s me. This looks like a gorgeous edition and based on the care and detail of the writing itself, I’m thrilled to see it’s getting the same amount of love in its visual treatment. Thanks for the post!
posted by Mchelly at 9:33 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Over the decades, my wife has chuckled every time I say that I received an update and that the book is shipping 'real soon'. I just paid extra postage to Canada, so I guess I'm still a believer! Like all books, those who get it *really* get it, and others shrug and move on. To me it is still a pleasure to read, although I have to admit that my favourite book of his is Aegypt, not forgetting the very wonderful short story Antiquities which is a must-read for cat lovers.
posted by aeshnid at 9:53 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

hmmm ok I cannot believe I have never read this. as a serious JS&MN fan, this seems to be right in my wheelhouse too. I wonder how long it will take me to get my hands on a copy, or even an electronic copy from the library. lol...something to look forward to!
posted by supermedusa at 9:54 AM on January 24

Is this a RIYL Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? 'cause I'm getting that vibe, and I really liked JS&MN

That’s how it was sold to me, but “Little, Big” is both a step or two weirder and tonally quite different ( it lacks JS&MN’s Austenish wit and appealing archness). It is at once a more self-consciously poetic and earnest and also quite dreamy (I remember describing the sensation of reading it as being like I was floating). I really enjoyed Little, Bit but it’s definitely its own thing.
posted by thivaia at 9:55 AM on January 24 [7 favorites]

it sounds a bit more like Piranesi in tone
posted by supermedusa at 10:14 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

It's a very American book in the same way that JS&MN is a very English one. It's also a very personal book where JS&MN is political and large-scale. It's a book that's very concerned with spatial relationships. But it's similar to JS&MN in how dreamy and numinous its best parts are, how successful its best passages are at conveying a sense of the uncanny. Not the uncanny of horror fiction, but... cozy and disquieting at the same time; the weirdness isn't going to disembowel you or drive you insane but you still have to carry yourself very very carefully in its presence.

It's an easier book to admire than to love, but I'd unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who's interested in fantasy.
posted by Jeanne at 10:24 AM on January 24 [7 favorites]

This is great news for everyone who's been waiting!

I read it and liked it quite a lot, but I think I attempted to re-read it years later and found myself impatient with it. It's a LONG book. Really good, though.

My favorite Crowley book is nothing like Little, Big - it's The Translator, which is about "the relationship between an exiled Russian poet and his American translator during the Cuban missile crisis." The only similarity is that they're both so well written.

There's something that makes me happy about the announcement making it clear that they're filling the oldest orders first. (Also, it seems sensible that they're confirming addresses: "With a project whose order history spans 18 years, we need to hear from all of you who have pre-ordered, before we can ship your book. We can only ship to those pre-orders whose addresses have been confirmed. ")

I hope their fulfillment process goes smoothly, and I hope everyone who's been waiting ends up with a copy in their hands very soon.
posted by kristi at 10:41 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

To my eye the book that resembles Little, Big the most is Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, although WT has much more treacle (and right-wing politics). Thomas M. Disch’s On Wings of Song is a distant, far more cynical cousin.

I would recommend Engine Summer over L,B as an introduction to Crowley. It’s weirder than L,B, but also considerably shorter, and about as close to perfect as a novel can get.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:55 AM on January 24 [11 favorites]

I just relistened. It is an astonishingly well-written book. Every sentence, paragraph, chapter, etc fits together like a beautiful machine. The descriptions are gorgeous and evocative, the setting wonderfully realized, and the plot intricate. However, the characters are more implied than developed, and many are (deliberately) without agency — almost everyone is part of The Story, and few get to make Decisions, and those only at certain times. It’s not a failing but a choice (which may not be to your taste).

It’s also very much a book of the late 70s; the depiction of gender roles feels surprisingly archaic and some of the depictions of sexuality are a bit hard to take from 40 years on. For example, there is a character who hints at unacted-upon pedophillic urges (as a nod toward Lewis Carroll, I think) but in an offhand way that’s a little jarring. Anyway, it’s very much Of Its Time.

If you like Gaiman, Morgenstern, or Clarke, you probably should check this out, since both were clearly influenced by it. If you like beautiful writing and evocative images, it’s well worth the time. If you like plots that require a bit of work, it might be your jam. If you like deep fully-realized characters, much less so.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:00 AM on January 24 [8 favorites]

It's a beautiful novel but it doesn't work for everyone. It's not really similar to JS&MN except in length and elements of the premise.
The Ægpyt books start wonderfully but by the time he wrote the last one it was clear he'd written himself into a corner (although, given that the books are about the world changing radically but unnoticed by most, that might be appropriate).
My personal favorite Crowley is the novella Great Work of Time - the best time travel story ever written and a vicious attack on British colonialism although you might not realize that from the first couple of pages. (If you happen to read it it's worth knowing that the Cape to Cairo railway was planned but never built - a useful anchor point in a story that keeps drilling into the implications of time travel.)
posted by thatwhichfalls at 11:04 AM on January 24 [6 favorites]

One of my favourite Crowley works is the short novella Great Work of Time, although I think that is only available as part of a collection now.
posted by fimbulvetr at 11:04 AM on January 24 [4 favorites]

I suspect I've started this journey with a complete edition of Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer stories and novels. We're entering year four of it being "just about to come out". The extra annoying thing is unlike Little, Big these are totally out of print otherwise.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:09 AM on January 24

It is my absolute, all time, favorite novel. I have read it hmmm probably seven or eight times? Maybe more? I reread it about every five years and so far I have never found it visited by the Suck Fairy. Unfortunately a $150 edition is out of my league, sigh, but I do own two copies at the moment because I always want to be able to give, not lend, someone a copy. Holding on to my nice early edition hardcover with dust jacket, though.

Crowley is an astonishing and under appreciated author. I think he is one of the greats of the American 20th century novel, seriously, like one of the top ten. I don't know why he isn't better known; I suspect it's either being tarred by the SF&F brush and/or because his range is so wide and varied. That means that not every books is going to agree with everyone; I keep trying - as in, for YEARS - to make my way all the way through all four of the Aegypt books and bouncing off. I love them and am frustrated by them in equal measures and, warning, wow, yeah, a lot of the content did not age well. I remember those days and lived them to some extent and still I had to skim some stuff on my most recent attempt, so, be warned. Besides that, he's never an easy read; he makes you think and I haven't been able to think recently, sigh.

Ka is another amazing novel though that I recommend wholeheartedly. It's dark AF and strange and unsettling and, well, it doesn't turn happy but, at least to me, it was worth the journey.

FWIW I dislike Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, even though I have read it twice and watched the miniseries, so I do not think they are as close as people might think. I agree with whoever said up thread that it is closer to Winter's Tale, which I also adore and recommend wholeheartedly, although I haven't reread it recently, so YMMV. I think Little, Big is closer in tone to 100 Years of Solitude and Midnight's Children than JS&MN.
posted by mygothlaundry at 11:23 AM on January 24 [8 favorites]

My god, it's actually happening!
posted by Gerald Bostock at 11:25 AM on January 24

Would there be any interest in a FanFare discussion of Little, Big? I can put up a FanFare post any time, but it might be more fun if a group of us could commit to reading or rereading the novel simultaneously, so we can get some discussion going. Anyone interested, feel free to MeMail me or post in this thread.
posted by verstegan at 11:35 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Read Engine Summer last year after seeing it pop up in several threads here.. exceptionally dreamy and unusual book that still lingers a year later.
posted by latkes at 11:42 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

Has anyone read Crowley's newest, Flint & Mirror? I feel sheepish to admit it's been on my TBR pile for a while now. (For the record, Little, Big is my very favorite book also.)
posted by newdaddy at 11:43 AM on January 24

Incidentally, those who liked Little, Big should read the short story Novelty (collected in Novelties and Souvenirs) - it's about what it would be like to write LB or perhaps what it would be like to be the person who actually wrote LB, Crowley seeming to be as bemused by the book as any reader, as though he touched something that was taken away once the book was done.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 11:55 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

I'm very glad to see this new edition appear. Little, Big is such a rich, dreamy, and moving book. I've be rereading bits of it over the years. Perhaps I'll snag this copy to dive in for the whole thing.

Engine Summer is terrific. It offers an unusual take on the post-atomic war world, and the end still makes me cry.

I second the motion for "Great Work of Time," a powerful alternate history story with many surprises.

I've read and reread the first two Ægpyt novels and have been hoping to push on to the end. To me they now feel like documents of a time, the late 20th century rethinking of the occult and the developing New Age movement.

Also a plug for "Snow," a fine little short story about memory, technology, and loss.
posted by doctornemo at 12:39 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

welp, off to reserve this at my local library as I've never read nor heard of it until Neil G's blog entry about it
posted by Kitteh at 12:39 PM on January 24

Also a plug for "Snow,"

Yes, it's like a Greg Egan story if Greg Egan was a poet.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 12:44 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

That's a description to grab me. I searched and Snow is available online.
posted by bleary at 1:07 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

I read Little, Big one hazy summer in 2004, and it stuck with me in a way few books have. Beyond the dreamy but pointy mood of the book, I also really appreciate its approach to plot. In contrast to almost every other fantasy book I've read, the plot here is obvious only in retrospect - the reader moves through it by hints and allusions. You're not quite sure what is happening until after it has happened, not sure why objects or people are relevant until the curtain is pulled back. It's not so much that the book is full of surprises, but that events precede understanding: by the time you know what's going on, it has already passed. The Mona Lisa's smile only appears when you look away from her lips, the plot of Little, Big only comes into focus when you're left in its wake.

(Or maybe I'm just not a skilled enough reader to spot it in time! But the experience for me was a sublime one.)
posted by Paragon at 1:20 PM on January 24 [5 favorites]

Little, Big has been on my "ought to read it" list for a long time. Sounds like this is the year to move it to my Read list.
posted by gentlyepigrams at 2:37 PM on January 24

"like a Greg Egan story if Greg Egan was a poet" - nice phrase.
posted by doctornemo at 2:39 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Couldn’t finish it, very rare for me.

In that, it joins The Martian Sphinx by Keith Woodcott (I later heard it was John Brunner's first novel); Grotto of the Formingans; whatever the only Doc Savage novel I tried to read was called; Voyage to Arcturus which I read most of; and Dhalgren, which I feel guilty about — but not very.
posted by jamjam at 5:14 PM on January 24

I have never heard of this book before. Following some of the links, I found a preview to a chapter or such.... and now I must find this book. I was never able to finish Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but this one captivated me in just the little bit I read.
posted by annieb at 6:00 PM on January 24

It looks like I've never read this. Thought I did. I bought a copy about 12 years ago that I might still have. I loved the Aegypt books, which have had a major ongoing effect on my thinking.

A good reminder to check it out.

I also suspect I will love Engine Summer at some point.
posted by grobstein at 7:26 PM on January 24

As an early subscriber I'm very happy to see this finally come to fruition. I haven't read LB again for a long time partly because I was hoping to read it in this edition, so I hope it still works for me after all this time!

Ron Drummond, who planned and managed this edition, deserves a lot of credit for not giving up on it after a lot of things went wrong. Neil Gaiman gave it the fairy tale ending it deserved by rescuing it. If you didn't read the link to the story of how that happened please give it a look: Midnight in Montreal.

If you want a starter book of Crowley's I think Engine Summer (already recommended) is the one to pick. Its short, and the ending is beautifully sad.
posted by crocomancer at 2:43 AM on January 25

For a long time, if anyone askesd me about my favourite book, one of them was always Little, Big, but I haven't reread it for a long while. I have always had an oddly fast reading speed, and used to love huge doorstop books but find as I get older and more whatever (gestures wildely around the room) my attention span isn't quite up to it, rather as some of my contempraries (I'm nearly 70) can't manage large indigestible meals any more, Still, I did love it dearly, and have the framed cross stitch version of this thread's title to prove it, so maybe time for a reread while I can.

I would say it's a good deal more like Piranesi than JS&MN, but not really much like either. I have a dim memory of reading Winter's Tale, but all I remember is not liking it much. Part of its charm is that it is so unlike other books.
posted by Fuchsoid at 5:39 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]

Would there be any interest in a FanFare discussion of Little, Big?

I've just started reading it now for the first time and so far it is fantastic! I'd love to be able to discuss it with others.
posted by vacapinta at 5:43 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

I’ve only read Engine Summer (recently actually) and it’s great, with writing that’s miles above most fantasy and sci-fi. I think I should check out Little, Big now.
posted by caviar2d2 at 9:30 AM on January 25

How is the text different from previous editions?
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 10:49 AM on January 25

How is the text different from previous editions?

From a reviewer (back in 2010!):
The text has been re-edited by Drummond and restored by its onlie begetter, crowleycrow himself, from the orginal manuscripts. Small changes: deft cuts of tiny infelicities or stutters, restorations of text cut from its first edition, new passages. You won’t be jarred. It’s re-illuminating.
Hopefully we'll find out soon!
posted by wilberforce at 4:12 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]

I discovered this book from a 2016 Twitter thread in which Kelly Link mentioned it as possibly her all-time favorite. I’d encountered John Crowley’s work through Small Beer Press before, but hadn’t really finished any of it.

When you are a voracious reader and you are middle aged, it is rare to experience a book that makes you feel like you’ve just discovered reading again. Not because books are worse but simply because you are different; less able to immerse yourself for long stretches. Less patient with wordplay or paths that lead deep into the forest but not back out again. Somehow with two small children and several jobs I finished Little, Big and cried because I had just found a new favorite book and realized it might not happen again for a good long while.

I’ve reread it probably six times since, and then one summer I listened to the audiobook while alone in my ramshackle delight of an empty house that I was cleaning and prepping for sale. Edgewood itself looms large in my imagination. I would love a Fanfare thread about this book.

Last fall my house sold and I took part of the proceeds and bought this edition as a birthday gift to myself. Then I took $10 and bought two cheap paperback copies, one to keep pretty and one to annotate*. I don’t know when my copy of the anniversary edition is going to show up but I am so excited for it to get here! And to find a few more people who really love it - I’ve recommended it to several bookish friends who just couldn’t get into it so I’ve never really discussed it with anyone else.

*I couldn’t bring myself to write in it but I’ve porcupined it with tiny sticky notes.
posted by annathea at 10:05 PM on January 25 [6 favorites]

Little, Big disappointed me in part because it came so highly recommended. I slogged my way to the end but remained unenchanted by a novel that aspired to the oneiric but ended up as merely an onerous attempt to incorporate the fantastic in American life.

As GenjiandProust notes above, characterization is often thin in this work that smacks so much of the late seventies. The one character who sticks in my mind exemplifies the "Magical Negro" trope in the most cringe making way; I wish sensitivity readers had been around then to convince Crowley or his publisher that "Fred Savage" needed either revision or excision.
posted by Deodatus at 3:41 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]

Yeah, the book is not good on race. Which is too bad, because I think Crowley was really trying to reach beyond the sort of self-contained whiteness of his basic premise -- not just incorporating BIPOC characters into the story, but making a point of showing the awkwardness and unexamined racism of this painfully sheltered white kid encountering a wider world that includes people of color.

It's a significant shortcoming, and yet this is still somehow one of the absolute best books I've ever read.

I'm a little surprised by folks saying the characterization is thin? Many of the "magical" secondary characters are two-dimensional -- deliberately so, I think -- but I've always thought that Smoky, Daily Alice, Auberon, et al. were unusually well-realized. They feel like real people to me.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 9:59 AM on January 26 [4 favorites]

I do want to both echo and boost Deodatus’ comment because I do genuinely love this book but the racism (which probably felt progressive at the time) is undeniable and a good content note/warning for new readers. It was especially jarring to me in the audiobook, read by the author, where he unsuccessfully attempts to use dialect to convey that Fred Savage is Black.
posted by annathea at 11:01 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]


I should have known this was too good to be true.

My copy was shipped by UPS, by far and away the worst method of shipping anything to Canada. Today I got a notification that it made it as far as the border, and is now being returned to sender because they couldn't get hold of the sender for brokerage. And when I phoned them, they said there is nothing I could do about it except contact the sender and have them re-ship it.

Almost 20 years of waiting, to only have stupid UPS mess things up.

I learned long ago to never, ever, ever order anything for shipment to Canada from someone who uses UPS. It is guaranteed to take forever, go wrong, or cost 300% more due to excessive brokerage fees.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:30 AM on February 2 [2 favorites]

Finally read this thanks to this thread! And, uh, let’s just say that my enjoyment was pretty high until it immediately, dramatically collapsed. Happy for everyone who is excited, happy to have finally read it, and happy there are other people in this thread who bounced off it. If someone knows a really good essay explaining some of the more perplexing choices (Barbarossa), I’d love to read it.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:40 PM on February 5

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