December 2008 Archives

Given that my day job, as it were, is the writing of nonfiction, I wish I could express adequately the utter dismay I feel at the announcement yesterday that yet another "memoir" has been exposed as a fabrication, and that another prestigious publishing house which should have known better was conned into accepting a manuscript for publication without having performed so much as an elementary investigation into its veracity.

We might have hoped that the utter humiliation suffered less than three years ago by Doubleday with the acknowledgment it had been duped into believing James Frey's best-selling "account" of beating drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces,  would have occasioned more aggressive fact checking in the industry. But now we have Herman Rosenblat, and the unmasking of Angel at the Fence, his "true story of a love that survived"--that's the subtitle--being disowned by Berkley Books, a unit of Penguin, on the eve of its release in February.

In yet another twist of coincidental embarrassment (I won't use the word irony here), it was two appearances Rosenblat made on the Oprah Winfrey television show that helped create a groundswell of interest in his story, which purports to be an authentic tale of love triumphing over evil during the horrors of the Holocaust. Unlike A Million Little Pieces, however, which was selected by Oprah as one of her top picks, Rosenblat's fabrications were exposed before the book got into print, and before it could have been touted to Oprah's audience as a love story for the ages. (I can only imagine what sets of the uncorrected proofs will be going for shortly on eBay.)

For those who wonder how Berkley might have gone about investigating the various claims made by Rosenblat in his manuscript, I suggest they take a look at the outstanding piece of hard-nosed journalism researched and written by Gabriel Sherman for the most recent edition of The New Republic, published on Christmas Day. It was this article--a tutorial, really, on how it should be done--that led very quickly to yesterday's decision by the publisher to deep-six the work, and to demand return of the $50,000 advance he had been paid against royalties.

There is one bit bit of irony here, and it comes in the announcement by Hollywood film producer Harris Salomon that he will proceed with plans for a movie based on the book, with the caveat that it now will be pitched to a credulous public as a work of the imagination, not nonfiction. Hey, nobody ever said Angel at the Fence wasn't a good story, which leads me to wonder why the author and his agent didn't shop the thing around as a novel in the first place.

The death yesterday at 78 of Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter brings to mind a very brief discussion I had with the great British playwright twenty-four years ago, and how I acquired what is easily one of the most unusual author autographs in my collection of inscribed first editions.

On Oct.3, 1984, I was in Boston interviewing Lady Antonia Fraser, Pinter's wife, and a distinguished author in her own right. The occasion for our meeting was the publication of her book, The Weaker Vessel, a richly informative study of women in seventeenth-century England.

It was a gorgeous fall day--no city in America is more beautiful than Boston in autumn--and  Pinter, who was traveling with his wife on her publicity tour across the United States, was anxious to see a famous Rembrandt painting on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on the Fenway (the same painting, in fact, that was stolen by masked bandits six years later). About twenty minutes or so into the interview--I usually had an hour to talk with the authors I profiled for my literary columns--he walked briskly into the main room of their suite at the Ritz-Carlton, and said, "I think it's time we got going. Do you mind terribly if I take my wife to the museum?"

Lady Fraser looked at me apologetically; I assured her that I had plenty of material for my piece, and thanked her for her time. But I did wonder aloud if she could inscribe my copy of her book before they left, and opportunist that I am in these matters, asked Pinter if he could sign it as well. "It's not my book," he said with an edge of annoyance. "I know," I replied, "but I'd love to have your signature in it anyway."  So there, on the title page of The Weaker Vessel, beneath the nice inscription from Antonia Fraser, is the signature of her husband, Harold Pinter. I'm very pleased to have the book on my shelves

The obituary in today's New York Times, I might add, is curious for the fact that it was mostly written by Mel Gussow, the outstanding critic and cultural reporter for the newspaper who died three years ago. The Times is famous for writing obituaries of notable people well in advance of their deaths, then keeping the articles on file and updating them only with the particulars of their passing. This is a most unusual instance--I'm sure there have been others, but I can't think of any more at the moment--where the principal reporter of an obituary has predeceased the subject of the article. It's a beautifully insightful piece of writing about a major contemporary writer, and I recommend it highly.
An homage of sorts today to the great Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936), the inimitable Chicago newspaperman whose syndicated column of a century ago was a national sensation, earning the unqualified endorsement of such fans as Teddy Roosevelt, despite the fact that TR was a frequent target of his barbed wit.

Dunne's observations were expressed through the voice of a fictional Irish-American bartender, one Martin Dooley, who held court in a South Side pub and expounded on all matters political, cultural, and social, typically in conversation with his good friend and foil, Mr. Hennessy. What captured the fancy of readers everywhere was the spontaneity and infectious good nature of Mr. Dooley, and the fact that his sardonic words of wisdom were expressed in the barely penetrable voice of a thick Irish brogue.

Dunne wrote some 700 Dooley pieces, a good many of them collected in eight volumes published between 1898 (Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War) and 1919 Mr. Dooley on Making a Will and Other Necessary Evils), all runaway best-sellers of their day in a manner that prefigured the enormous popularity of the great newspaper humorist Art Buchwald, who died last year at 81. Because the Dooley collections are all in the public domain, full texts for most are available online through Google Books or Project Gutenberg. In each instance, just do a search for Finley Peter Dunne, and follow the directions.

Alternatively, you might want to borrow a real copy from the public library, in which case I suggest you go to WorldCat, the online database for materials held in thousands of libraries worldwide. Find the item you are looking for by author, title, keyword, or a combination, plug in your zip code, and the nearest copy near you will be displayed. This is one of the most remarkable tools available online to readers everywhere, and it is absolutely free. I regard it as indispensable to what I do.

But I digress: what prompted me, you might ask, to think about Mr. Dooley today, and to recall his comment about what he had just read in the newspaper ("I see be th' pa-apers," which Dunne tells in the preface to the 1898 collection of the columns that his alter ego read every day "with solemn care")? A couple things: the first, a terrific piece in today's New York Times about the small Brooklyn, NY printing firm that has been awarded the contract to print the invitations for Barack Obam's forthcoming inauguration, the second a review that appeared last week in the Christian Science Monitor, and brought to my attention by another electronic miracle known as Google News Alerts.

The review in question was written seven years ago by the noted reviewer Merle Rubin for my second book, Patience & Fortitude and republished last week with this explanation: The Monitor occasionally reprints book reviews from its archives. This review originally ran on Dec. 27, 2001.

It's hard enough these days to get new books reviewed in the major media, never mind books that have been around for a couple of years. This was one of the most perceptive reviews, I must say, written of P&F, and certainly one of the most gratifying for me to receive as the author. To see it again like this--indeed, to run across it in a fashion that recalls the words of Mr. Dooley--makes for an unforgettable Christmas gift.
It's days like these that I think how senseless the loss last year of the great American writer, David Halberstam, killed in a terrible automobile accident in Northern California. I often wonder what he'd have to say about so many different things that are going on in the world--the recent election, the constant misuse of his phrase "the best and the brightest" for Barack Obama's cabinet choices (see Frank Rich's piece in the New York Times), the "spygate" brouhaha last year involving Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, subject of a Halberstam biography, to name just a few.

But what has sparked my thoughts today of the deft pen of Halberstam is another piece that ran in the Times, and brought to my attention this morning by my wife Connie (who had the newspaper first.) It's about the venerable New York Society Library at 53 East 79th Street in Manhattan, a 254-year-old subscription library that has been loaning books out over the generations to such luminaries as George Washington, Herman Melville, Willa Cather, Truman Capote, Barbara Tuchman, and David Mamet. As nice as today's piece is, I thought immediately of a truly superb appreciation Halberstam had written about the institution a number of years ago, in this instance from the perspective of a grateful reader who often went there for repose and refuge as much as for reading.

Through the magic of Google, I found the 1997 essay quite quickly, on the web page of the society itself, in fact. Like the institution Halberstam celebrated, the article has lost none of its magic with the passage of eleven years, and I recommend it as a heartfelt profile of a great book place. You can read it here: http://www.nysoclib.org/articles/halberstam_1997.html
Today, we have redux of another kind, and not one that is very pleasant to report. In February 2004, I wrote an OpEd piece for the Boston Globe that told how a rare botanical book from the early eighteenth century sold at a Christie's auction fourteen months earlier by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society had been stripped to the bare bones of its 248 exquisite engravings, and sold on the Internet as trendy wall decorations by rapacious European dealers. (The piece was included in Editions & Impressions, recently published by Fine Books Press).

What made this disclosure especially egregious was that the book --known as the Nurnbergische hesperides, and one of just eight held institutionally worldwide--was one of more than 2,000 culled from the collection of the once-proud Boston organization, and sold off to pay for such necessities as a new roof for the society's building and to help underwrite its annual flower show. All told, the MHS raised more than $5 million from the fire sale of a library once regarded as one of the strongest of its kind in North America.

As shameless as this desecration was--the MassHort director at the time rationalized that many of the books "hadn't been used in decades"--there were tepid assurances that what remained, at least, would be safeguarded for future users. Well, so much for half-hearted promises, as the results of a sale this week of fine books and manuscripts at Sotheby's in New York make so painfully clear.

Not content, apparently, to keep at least a couple of the treasures that remained from a tradition that goes back to 1829, MassHort found another 27 high-end items on its shelves to put on the block--all of them beautifully illustrated, and all of them prime targets for the kind of cultural cannibalism that took place with the Nurnbergische hesperides--were offered up on Dec. 11, and projected to bring in $700,000 to $1 million, almost a third of the $3.42 million realized in the sale of 247 lots.

Top grossers among MassHort books included: $98,500 for lot 222, Hortus Sanitatis (Mainz, 1491); $86,500 for lot 219, a work known as the Grete Herbal (London, 1526); $22,500 for lot 226, Edwin Hale Lincoln's Orchids of the North Eastern United States (Pittsfield, MA. 1931), and $15,000 for lot 229, a two-volume collection of lithographs of the garden of Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von PĆ¼ckler-Muskau (Stuttgart, 1834.) What was expected to be highest-ticked MHS item of the sale--a seven volume set of stipple-engraved plates by Henri-Louis Duhamel Du Monceau depicting various fruits (Paris, 1807-1835) valued at $80,000 to $100,000--failed to reach its reserve, and was "bought in," as the saying goes, and will undoubtedly go on the block in another sale, or be sold privately.

"It's certainly one of the best groups of illustrated botanical books we've auctioned in several decades," Selby Kiffer, a senior vice president in the books and manuscript department at Sotheby's in New York, told the Boston Globe. "It includes masterworks, as well as some lesser known but unique books."

Betsy Ridge Madsen, president of the MassHort board of trustees, said she was saddened by the decision to put on yet another garage sale of irreplaceable treasures, "but we see this as the only way to go forward to clean up our debt." Like her predecessor four years ago, she said the society will maintain the five hundred rare books that still remain in the collection, along with 12,000 other volumes. But she added this caveat: "We did a member survey, in which we asked members what was most meaningful about their membership, and the rare books were their lowest priority."

Which is short-hand for fasten your seat belts. The founders and earliest benefactors of this venerable institution--some of the giants of nineteenth-century Boston society--must be turning over in their graves. The Athens of America, indeed.
A friend reminded me this morning of a passage in my first book, A Gentle Madness, that seems especially appropriate to what's going on in the world today, with recession and unemployment and bankruptcy everywhere around us. It appears at the very end of Part I, and is an excerpt from a work titled For the Love of Books: The Adventures of an Impecunious Collector, written by a man named Paul Jourdan-Smith, and published in 1933, during the midst of the Great Depression. Here is what he had to say:

"This is no time for the collector to quit his books. He may have to quit his house, abandon his trip to Europe and give away his car; but his books are patiently waiting to yield their comfort and provoke him to mirth. They will tell him that banks and civilizations have smashed before; governments have been on the rocks, and men have been fools in all ages. But it is all very funny. The gods laugh to see such sport, and why should we not join them?"

Words of wisdom, if ever there were any.



The idea of "luxury publishing" is by no means a new concept, the tradition of artisans being commissioned by wealthy patrons to create exquisite books that are coveted as works of art in and of themselves--and which oftentimes contain text as secondary to the artifact itself--has been with us for centuries. I am by no means opposed to this convention--indeed, I have written admiringly on occasion about people who make these books as well as those who covet, sell and collect them--but I have always been fairly straightforward in my belief that the fundamental purpose of a book is to inspire, instruct, and entertain, and that this, typically, is done through the medium of the written word.

I was reminded of this by the announcement a few days ago that a book newly made at a cost of 100,000 euros--$127,120 at current conversion rates--had been given to the New York Public Library, which promptly put the sixty-two-pound volume on view in an impromptu exhibition expected to last for about a week. Called Michelangelo: La Dotta Mano ("Michelangelo: The Learned Hand"), the book was crafted in Italy over several months as a 264-page celebration of the great Renaissance master's work, and is adorned with a bas-relief depiction of "Madonna of the Steps" sculptured on a piece of white marble from one of the quarries in Carrara, Italy, that supplied stone for his statues. The NYPL copy was a gift from the publisher.

According to an article in the New York Times,  the book's "positively sybaritic binding is swathed in red velvet from the same Italian workshop that supplied stage curtains to the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala in Milan. And the book's photographs and plates of drawings and images of the Sistine Chapel are printed on luxurious paper of pure cotton produced in Italy."  The book is one of thirty-three made thus far by an Italian company called Gruppo FMR, twenty of which have been sold; ninety-nine altogether are planned.

I find especially interesting the assertion each book comes with a 500-year warranty. Lost in all this, though, is any real discussion of what's inside, other than some wonderful black-and-white photographs by the noted museum photographer Aurelio Amendola. What the NYPL put on display behind glass was simply the marble exterior. Unlike the Book of Kells in Dublin--where the pages are turned once a day--this volume remains closed, though the Times did put up a slide show of a few pages as a kind of teaser. For a complete view, I guess we'll all have to wait for the facsimile edition, which is sure to come along before long--and at a much more affordable price.
I am working this week on the annual roundups I do for Literary Features Syndicate on books worthwhile for holiday giving, one batch for adults, the other for kids. Both of these will be up on my website (www.nicholasbasbanes.com or www.gentlymad.com) soon, but I thought, in the meantime, I might offer, in this space, some books that qualify for another little exercise I enjoy doing when time and the spirit permit, Nick's Picks. In this instance, I am citing works recently published that relate in one way or another to the book world. I'll be adding more to the list in due course, but these, in particular, struck me as especially relevant for mention here.

The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, $34.95. 738 pages), a masterful intellectual biography by Kevin J. Hayes, professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, that deals fundamentally with the books that helped shape the mind and thought of our greatest bibliophile president.

The Man Who Loved China (HarperCollins, $27.95, 316 pages), Simon Winchester's wonderful account of the life and times of Joseph Needham (1900-1995), the eccentric British scientist sometimes called the "Erasmus of the twentieth century" for his magisterial multi-volume work, Science and Civilization in China, published by Cambridge University Press.

Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 276 pages), by Timothy W. Ryback, an original consideration of the person who created the Third Reich based on an examination of the books that were recovered from his personal library, and which are now in the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C.

Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books (Yale University Press, $30, 295 pages), a scholarly look at how people acquired books from the sixteenth century to the present, by Margaret Willes, publisher of the National Trust in England.

Among art books, two, on related themes, have been helpful to me in my continuing research on a cultural history of paper and papermaking; both include exceptional text, and both are richly illustrated.

Thumbnail image for Chinese Call.jpg Chinese Calligraphy (Yale University Press, $75, 520 pages), by Ouyang Zhongshi and Wen C. Fong, and translated from the Chinese and edited by Wang Youfen, the latest installment in the Culture & Civilization in China series launched ten years ago by Yale University Press and the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing, and covering the history, theory, and importance of a remarkable art form over the three millennia of its development.

The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy (Thames & Hudson, $75, 240 pages), by Abdelkebin Khatibi and Mohammed Sijelmassi, a hugely influential work first published in 1996, and now back in print in this new edition.

Finally, four paperbacks from a new series recently introduced by Trinity University Press in San Antonio, Texas, under the general editorship of Edward Hirsch, called The Writer's World, each volume priced at $24.95:

Irish Writers on Writing, edited by Evan Boland; Mexican Writers on Writing, edited by Margaret Sayers Peden; Hebrew Writers on Writing, edited by Peter Cole; and Polish Writers on Writing, edited by Adam Zagajewski.

Feel free to enter your own "Picks" in the comments area below.
I am pleased to offer in this exciting new forum my modest take on what is going on these days in the book world, and while I'm at it, to reflect on my continuing adventures among people I have come, with great affection, to regard as the gently mad. To this end, I welcome your comments, and look forward to creating a lively dialogue with one and all.

While the basic theme of this blog will involve the general concept of book culture--and everything that implies--I thought it appropriate to begin where my professional life on the book beat began more than thirty years ago, as a critic and book review editor for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in Massachusetts. A lot of water has passed beneath the keel since then--thousands of interviews with every manner of book person, hundreds of literary reviews, features, and essays for a variety of newspapers and magazines both large and small, seven published books, dozens of lectures presented at universities and libraries throughout the country--but reading remains the central pursuit, and the one, at root, that matters the most to me.

So without further ado, I'll begin modestly by referring you to a review I recently wrote for the Los Angeles Times on The Private Patient, the latest Adam Dalgliesh novel by the incomparable British crime writer P. D. James, one of my very favorite contemporary authors, and a woman I have had the great pleasure to interview three times over the years. (In time, I hope to have many of these literary features I have written available on my website, which very much remains a work-in-progress; on newer books, I'll also be posting a regular selection of Nick's Picks.)

Meanwhile, here is a brief excerpt from my Times review:

"Since introducing Adam Dalgliesh 46 years ago in Cover Her Face, Phyllis Dorothy James has not been coy about the genuine affection she has for her signature character. It is no surprise, then, that Dalgliesh, a published poet, is never boring, never predictable, always complex. All of the traditional conventions of the crime novel, moreover, are present, not least among them a circle of suspects who each possess motive, means and opportunity to have committed the crime."

You can read the full review at: www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-book22-2008nov22,0,7749354.story

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