Before I worked at a bookstore, books were just things to be read. I never gave much thought to the big glossy volumes that occupy a lot of shelf space in many book stores. But the world of so-called “coffee table books” is surprisingly varied, going way beyond books of art or photographs of faraway places. With impressive production values – and hefty price tags – these books are closer to works of art than literature. I was reminded of this after an article London Review of Books pointed me to a book called Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopaedia Of Camoflage: Nature, Military, Culture. The heft and glossiness of such a volume, despite – or perhaps because of – its esoteric focus, somehow make it inordinately desirable to me. Taschen, the eccentric European publishing house known for its expensive and eclectic selections, also occasionally puts out books that have this affect on me, like the Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. And I’m a sucker for atlases, the bigger and glossier and more stuffed with maps and diagrams and charts the better, like the National Geographic Atlas of the World. I am especially intrigued by atlases devoted to a narrow topic like the Atlas of Contemporary Architecture.
A new book about a largely forgotten civil rights battle is getting good reviews. One Man’s Castle by Phyllis Vine tells the true story of an African American doctor in Detroit in 1925 named Ossian Sweet. The day he moved his family into a white neighborhood, his house was surrounded by an angry mob throwing rocks. Attempting to defend his family, Sweet fired on the crowd killing one of them. This AP review continues: “in a remarkable civil rights victory for the time, two all-white juries refused to convict them — recognizing the principle that a man’s house is his castle, regardless of race.” It sounds quite interesting.Everyone will be rushing out to see Troy this weekend, but you may want to flip through The Iliad if you want to get the real story.
There’s an article in the New York Times today about a Princeton undergrad who used statistical analysis to illuminate the biases of New Yorker fiction editors. Katherine L. Milkman read 442 stories printed in The New Yorker from Oct. 5, 1992, to Sept. 17, 2001, and “one main conclusion was that male editors generally publish male authors who write about male characters who are supported by female characters.” The 9/11 Commission will release its findings to the public in book form. It’s available for preorder at Amazon. And now hitting shelves, the paperback edition of Edward P. Jones’ Pulitzer-winning novel, The Known World. I highly recommend this book.
There’s a very entertaining article at the CBC Web site about the pros and cons of being prolific as a writer. It leads with a discussion of the output of Alexander McCall Smith of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame, who regularly churns out 3,000 words at a sitting. Prolific authors are often envied, but if they happen to be genre writers they are likely to be derided as well, even as publishers covet them and count on them to bankroll riskier publishing endeavors: The dream of most publishers is to have at least one “house author,” a writer with a robust fan base who can dependably churn out one title a year – giving the publisher the financial solidity to take the occasional flyer on more challenging (read: less gainful) authors.The article also includes a great quote from DFW: Musing on the seemingly inexhaustible John Updike, David Foster Wallace once asked, “Has the son-of-a-bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” Updike’s absurdly prodigious output – in the form of novels, as well as short stories, travel writing and literary criticism – has undermined his stature in the eyes of Foster Wallace, as well as many fiction readers. I would tend to agree that volume can degrade one’s reputation in the eyes of the reader. The article goes on to mention Joyce Carol Oates whose level of output many seem to take as a personal insult, and closes with an amusing comparison of Oates and Stephen King courtesy George Murray, proprietor of Bookninja.Curious about the output of different writers? This search returns lots of interesting numbers.
Longtime Millions reader Laurie writes in with news of a sale on classic lit at Barnes & Noble. These Barnes & Noble-branded editions are sometimes criticized for cannibalizing the editions of other publishers because the chain store offers them so cheaply. Then again, some might argue that cheap books (and especially cheap classics) are always a good thing. It appears that the series Laurie mentions is now sold out (at least on the B&N Web site), but I thought the issues Laurie raised about the series interesting enough to merit posting anyway. Laurie writes:Here’s another item for your “book deals” section, if you’re comfortable with it (I have no affiliation with this publisher; I just like a bargain. Comments on the moral dimensions welcome.):Barnes & Noble publishes their own editions of classic literature. One series, the “Collector’s Library,” focusing mainly on works of the 19th century, went on sale the day after Christmas. Each pocket sized (6 inch x 4 inch) edition is hardbound in red cloth with an attached red ribbon placeholder held in firmly a stitched binding (at least it appears well-made) that also holds the printed work in small but sharp type, on good quality, gilt-edged paper. These little books look good and feel nice. Marked down from $5 or $6, which was already cheaper than most paperbacks, they are now marked for clearance at $2.00 each. About the worst thing you can say about them is that the striped dustjackets are pretty unimaginative. Want a copy of Moby Dick or Treasure Island, though, that can fit in the back pocket of your jeans and that also looks nice on a bookshelf (probably sans dustjacket)? Scour your local B&N — they’re going fast.Two further notes about this series:B&N’s choice of titles here is pretty eclectic — of the 65 or so I could find (they have no published list of all the titles and have not yet responded to a request for such a list), they’ve published Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina but not his War & Peace; Dickens’ Great Expectations but not David Copperfield or Oliver Twist; Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, but no other poets of the era (Tennyson was incredibly popular but appears left out, ditto Byron, Shelley, Browning, Wordsworth, etc.), the French Revolution drama A Tale of Two Cities is present but not Les Miserables. On the plus side, there’s a good mix of adventure (Treasure Island, Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe), horror (Frankenstein, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera), and human interest (Little Women, Sense & Sensibility, The Scarlet Letter), among others.The books are printed in China, which probably accounts for their cheap price, but that may be objectionable to environmentalists (industrial waste laws are weaker there) or supporters of U.S.-based printers. Or it may be a moot point – just what percentage of American books are printed overseas these days anyway?