Neil Gaiman’s work is not easy to explain to taxi drivers. He tells us this straightaway in the introduction to his new book, “The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction” (William Morrow). But what he really means is that the work of Neil Gaiman, albeit staunchly true to whatever form a particular piece takes, is so vast and varied it defies a metered explication.
Try to pigeonhole Gaiman and we use terms such as fantasy or, more broadly, speculative fiction. But that’s too easy. And much too brief.
“Fantasy? Mysteries? Science fiction? Literary fiction? Children’s books? Poetry? Reviews? Funny? Scary?” asks Gaiman’s concocted cab driver.
“All of that really,” the author replies — an answer that goes to the core of his work.
While you won’t get “all of that” in “The Neil Gaiman Reader,” you will get much of the very best of his fiction, arranged chronologically from 1984 to 2018, in a beautifully produced volume that tops out at 2 pounds. It’s a literary trove of short stories and novel excerpts that will no doubt enthrall the author’s legion of fans — as they should. Gaiman delegated to his readers the chore of choosing the short story selections presented here. The excerpts that derive from some of his most popular novels — “American Gods,” “Anansi Boys,” “Nevermore” among them — were chosen by the author and his editor.
The only outlier to all of this is the fable, “Monkey and the Lady,” an enchanting, cerebral piece that had previously been found only once, in Dave McKean’s 2017 anthology, “The Weight of Words.” As to why Gaiman chose it for publication here, he’s not really sure: “It’s a story I love, very much, although I could not tell you why.”
But this is why we read Gaiman. Even long-time readers will admit that they could not tell you why a particular piece resonates with them, and this is the charm of the “Reader.” There is something here for every one, and the format allows fans to watch as the writer grows through his career — it is charming and informative to watch Gaiman develop homage to masters such as H.P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury — while inviting new readers into the fold.
The range of stories from the early “Chivalry,” in which a retired woman purchases the Holy Grail at a thrift shop for 30 pence and is visited by the charming Sir Galahad, to the “Monkey and the Lady” book-ending fable Gaiman includes craft a neatly packaged literary legacy.
As such, it is a book like Gaiman has never produced.
Given the long reach to the forms that fashion his fictional worlds, that indeed is a singular achievement.