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Archive for October, 2009

October 30th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Publishers Weekly announces top ten books of 2009

File this under prematurity: Several weekends ago I drove down to Portland, Maine. Along the way I encountered a boggling number of pumpkins and various ghoulish-looking incarnations adorning the porches and windows of a surprising number of abodes. Like those pathetic types who simply refuse to take down the Christmas decorations months after the fact, only in reverse. These people all need to hear what William Shatner once said to a swarm of die hard Trekkie conference attendees (on SNL, here): Get a Life already.

All this to say we can now include Publishers Weekly in this company. They today, according to USA Today, announced their best books of 2009. Here’s the list:

Richard HolmesThe Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science; Dan Chaon‘s Await Your Reply; Victor LaValle’s Big Machine; Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life; Neil Sheehan‘s A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon; Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon; Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft; and David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir

October 30th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

What Diana Athill likes about the Publishing Game

I saw Diana Athill only at a distance when I was in Toronto last weekend for the IFOA. Pity I wasn’t able to interview her. I did however, just this afternoon pick up a copy of her autobiography Instead of a Letter, published in 1963 by Chatto, republished, in the edition I bought at the Book Market, by Andre Deutsch in 1976 to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of its own founding – in November, 1951. Athill was a director of the firm at that time, as she was in 1976. Her book describes how the famous publishing company was launched, and, what she likes about the publishing game:

" Book X is not so good as Book Y, Books A,B, and C have good reasons for their existence but do not happen to interest me. Books D and E – God knows what we were thinking of when we took those on, they will both flop and they deserve to flop. Book F is embarrassing – I do not like it, I do not think it good but it will make a lot of money and it is not actually pernicious. But book G,H, I, J and K: now there are books with which I am pleased to have been concerned, there are voices which deserve to be heard;  and somewhere among them are my darlings, the books – not many of them, for in no generation are there many such writers – the books which, I believe, had to exist. This is why I like the work, and this is why other people in publishing like it, although some of them choose to affect a  ‘hard-headed-businessman’ attitiude and say at cocktail parties things like ‘I never read books’ or ‘I can’t stand writers.’ If a publisher does not have a good head for business either on his own shoulders of on his partner’s, he is a poor publisher, but if a good head for business were all he had, he would be making detergents or shoes of funishing fabrics, not books."
October 27th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Audio Inteview with Roderick ‘Rocky’ Stinehour conducted by Nigel Beale: On The Stinehour Press

Roderick ‘Rocky’ Stinehour is a very pleasant, accomplished gentleman from Vermont. He’s also recognized internationally as a printer of high repute and a designer of beautiful, scholarly books. His career spans over much change in printing technology and the way in which books are produced and distributed. In 1950, after graduating from Dartmouth College, he, along with his wife and brother, established The Stinehour Press in the village of Lunenburg, Vermont.

From modest beginnings the Press flourished thanks to persistence, vision, and the ability to attract skilled passionate co-workers; due to the quality of its books, the company will long be remembered as one of America’s finest scholarly publishers. 

I visited Rocky in the ‘Northeast Kingdom’ recently. Listen here to our conversation

October 25th, 2009 • Posted in On Book Collecting

Book Collecting idea of the Week

Last week I interviewed Jane Urquhart. We talked about her new biography of /response to Lucy Maud Montgomery. On the cover Lucy sports a quite stunning looking lid:

The book is part of Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series. Seventeen titles in total are listed on the website; all wear spiffy looking jackets. Lush oil portraits mostly, of the people portrayed within. You’ll recall that I’ve so far interviewed Nino Ricci on Pierre Trudeau, Margaret MacMillan on Stephen Leacock, and M.G. Vassanji on Mordecai Richler.

These volumes are smartly produced. Solid black cloth boards decorated with orange and white lettering and a cute little circled penguin on the front cover, complemented by regal red paste down end papers, and of course, the dust jackets. Anita Kuntz designed the Montgomery headgear. Info on the other artists can be found here. I’m quite partial to this number:

Why not join me as I work through the roster.
October 22nd, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Narrative, Evolution and Self Preservation.

Several weeks ago I wrote a post on Jerry Coyne’s contention that James Wood thought evolutionary biologists who venture into the literary jungle ‘a pack of morons.’  William Flesch, author of a book on the evolution of co-operation [ Comeuppance, Harvard, 2007] commented that Coyne’s remarks were puzzling, given that Wood had included Comeuppance on his list of favourite books of 2008.

I have only read the first chapter of Flesch’s book, however one objection (which could well be addressed in later pages)  immediately shows itself:

Flesch tells us that "narratives tend to contain or at least to suggest the possibility of three basic figures (though there may be more or fewer than three characters who ‘instantiate’ them): an innocent, someone who exploits that innocent, and someone else who seeks to punish the exploiter…The biological origin of this propensity is part of what has come to be called the "evolution of cooperation." which provides the insights that are central to this book."

Shakespeare had as hearty a grip on human nature, I’d say, as any narrative writer in history. Plenty of innocents get expoited in his greatest plays, plenty seek to punish the exploiters…more often than not plenty of all three end up dead in pools of blood, prostrate on the stage boards. How is this co-operation?
Flip over to ‘real’ life: Hitler exploited the Jews. Used them as scapegoats, blaming them for hardships faced by the ‘German’ population. Then he exterminated millions of them. The Allies, despite knowing at least some of what was going on, were uniformly reluctant to provide safe haven for the innocent, let alone  ‘punish the exploiter.’ They acted against the exploiter only when their own safety was in jeopardy.

This is not co-operation. It’s self preservation. Let us not forget, typically there is carnage before there is co-operation. 
October 21st, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Crow Alights by Ted Hughes

Crow Alights by Ted Hughes

Crow saw the herded mountains, steaming in the morning.

and he saw the sea

Dark-spined, with the whole earth in its coils.

He saw the stars, fuming away into the black, mushrooms of

the nothing forest, clouding their spores, the virus of God.

And he shivered with the horror of Creation.


In the hallucination of the horror

He saw this shoe, with no sole, rain-sodden,

Lying on a moor.

And there was this garbage can, bottom rusted away,

A playing place for the wind, in a waste of puddles.


There was this coat, in the dark cupboard,

in the silent room, in the silent house.

There was this face, smoking its cigarette between the dusk

window and the fire’s embers.

 Near the face, this hand, motionless.

 Near the hand, this cup.

 Crow blinked. He blinked. Nothing faded.

 He stared at the evidence.

 Nothing escaped him. (Nothing could escape.)

 "Among British poets, Hughes is the most haunted inheritor, from Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, of the sensibility shaped by the appalling slaughter in World War I. His father was gassed in the trenches in that war; growing up in its aftermath, Hughes has come to see the cosmos as a battlefield. His is the world-view of a betrayed Fundamentalist, who,  discovering that God has no care for man’s fate, understands the universe to be governed not by divine love but by power. In Hughes’s earlier books, Nature appeared as a field of violent struggle where only the fittest survived. Such Darwinian determinism required its own unforgiving theology. These views of life are not meliorated in Crow. With a startling, composite myth, Hughes explores our fate in such a universe."

from Daniel Hoffman, A review of Crow, in New York Times Book  Review, April 18, 1971, pp. 6, 35-6

October 21st, 2009 • Posted in On The Book

‘Privishing’ defined

Summarized from Mr. Wikipedia for you by me:

Privishing refers to the process of technically publishing a book without really publishing it. It’s printed in such small numbers or with such lack of marketing, advertising /sales support/enthusiasm that the book may as well never have been published in the first place. Said book is virtually impossible to obtain through normal channels, often can’t be special-ordered and is very seldom reprinted.

In short, when a book is privished it’s "killed".

Technical adherence to the terms of the publishing contract yes, but no more. Print-runs and marketing/sales budgets of controversial books will be slashed if a Publisher feels that promoting it will adversely affect business.

Privishing can be seen as a form of censorship too, particularly when it occurs in response to pressure from an irate author, or whomever. Threats of legal action or complications involving parent companies are often cited as reasons for privishing. Privishing also happens when there’s a true lack of interest in a title, a change of direction for the publisher or in some cases where a key editor on the title resigns.

Because only a few books a year can be big successes publishers typically put their money and efforts where they’ll get the most back. If a book doesn’t generate early interest from key outlets, such as large department stores, then it will probably be left to flap in the wind.

The size of an advance paid for a book can also determine whether or not a book is privished. If a publisher sinks big coin into a book then it’s likely to put at least enough money into sales/ promotion to at minimum earn the bread back. Books with low advances are killed with little publisher pain.

Privishing is a self-fulfilling prophesy: as initial sales efforts are subtly reduced, interest wains, marketing and sales efforts lose their priority. The author has no way to independently verify this and so can’t know if his title has been purposefully killed or not.

Books have a very short time frame during which to make an impact with the buying public, it’s almost impossible to determine the source of failure for a particular title, as a result, privishing has rarely been prosecuted in court.

October 20th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Video: Robin Robertson Reads some of his Best Known Poems


October 18th, 2009 • Posted in On Book Collecting

Collecting Books by Aldous Huxley

Understanding that this is a commonplace blog, where many items I store as much for easy referral as for audience entertainment, here is a list of the books Aldous Huxley wrote, courtesy of Fantastic Fiction ( volumes I still covet are in red, the rest, I own):
Non fiction
On the Margin (1923)
Along the Road: Notes And Essays of a Tourist (1925)
Essays New and Old (1926)
Proper Studies (1928)
Holy Face and Other Essays (1929)
Do What You Will (1929)
Vulgarity in Literature: Digressions from a Theme (1930)
The Letters of D. H. Lawrence (1932)
Jesting Pilate: The Diary of a Journey (1932)
Texts and Pretexts (1933)
Beyond the Mexique Bay (1934) (no dust jacket)
The Elder Peter Bruegel 1528(?) – 1569 (1938) (with Jean Videpoche)
The Perennial Philosophy (1938) (no dust jacket)
Grey Eminence: A Study in Religion and Politics (1941)
Science, Liberty and Peace (1946)
The Devils of Loudun (1952)
The Doors of Perception (1954)
Adonis and the Alphabet: and Other Essays (1956)
Heaven and Hell (1956)
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow: And Other Essays (1956)
On Art and Artists (1960)

Novellas Jacob’s Hands (1998)

I’ve been checking Huxley prices online during the past week against the Ahearn’s Book Collecting 2002 prices, and they appear to be down about 30%. This doesn’t seem to hold for Auden…despite this, I continue to believe that, depending upon the author, NOW remains, as bookseller Steve Lopez put it several years ago,  a golden age for both new and used book buyers.


October 16th, 2009 • Posted in On The Book

Thomas Mann defines the Publisher

Just finished reading Fred Warburg’s absorbing memoir An Occupation for a Gentleman. Enlightening to learn of the early struggles he faced, first with a broken marriage, then, during the 30s broken finances. The book ends at the beginning of the second world war. A supportive, if blunt, second wife, H.G. Wells and George Orwell set the stage for post war prosperity, which is treated in another concluding volume.

At the end of this book, Warburg quotes Thomas Mann’s tribute to Alfred Knopf, and his definition of the publisher:

"The publisher is not a soloist of spiritual exertion, but the conductor of the orchestra. Whereas the author, in his public lonelilness, with only himself to rely on, hemmed in of necessity by his ego, struggles to do his best, the publisher selects from the common effort whatever his instinct and his feeling of the necessary considers as just and beneficial. He takes it over, impresses the stamp of his enterprise upon it, and hurls it in its collective variety into the battle of life, where it must contend with the powers of obstinacy, ignorance and death…What a glorious occupation, this mixture of business sense and strategic friendship with the spirit! What a noble way to gain a livelihood! I called it easy, but this was a blunder. I am well aware that in these days the life of a publisher is far from easy. But happy I may certainly call it, in spite of all its difficulties. It must be happy, free from the torture and frailty which all individual creation involves – and yet with an opportunity to serve the spirit."