Recently in Nick's Picks Category

I have decided to start the new year off with a few books that came to my attention a bit too late to make my holiday roundups, but which are eminently worthy of notice all the same. Think of each one as a little present for yourself; you won't be disappointed.


horse.jpgThe Horse: From Cave Paintings to Modern Art, by Jean-Louis Gourand, Michel Woronoff, Henri-Paul Franefort, and others; Abbeville Press, 400 pages, with 328 full-color illustrations, boxed, $150.


So you didn't get a pony for Christmas, too bad, but you can still treat yourself to what is easily the most magnificent art book devoted to the horse that I have ever seen, and the best part is you don't have to feed it or clean out its stall. Arguably the most beautiful animal in nature, the horse has inspired creative expression for many centuries, with magnificent examples in a multitude of media to be found in the prehistoric caves of Lascaux, the sands of Mesopotamia, and depicted over the generations by cultures as varied as Babylonian, Scythian, Chinese, Greek, and Roman. First published in France in 2008, this remarkable book, newly translated and issued in a lovely boxed edition, pays homage to the horse in all its glory, with more than 300 color illustrations and thirteen learned essays to make the case. The horse, John Louis Gourand writes, is "undoubtedly the most frequently represented living being in art after man himself, from the very earliest of times." Abbeville Press lives up to its well-earned reputation for producing art books in the grand tradition; the illustrations are superbly chosen, and vividly reproduced.


George Washington's America: A Biography Through Maps, by Barnet Schecter; Walker, 304 pages, $67.50.


george.jpgKnown most famously, of course, as hero of the Revolution and first President of the United States, George Washington also worked as a surveyor early in his life, and had a lifelong relationship with maps. At his death, many of the charts he had owned and used were bound into an atlas that eventually made its way to the Map Collection of Sterling Library at Yale University, a corpus that provides the framework for this most interesting examination. In addition to the maps he purchased, Washington drew a number of his own that have survived. "These visual images," historian Robert Schecter writes, "place us at the scene of his youthful ambition and his later battles--in the landscapes and on the waterways that were the theater of war in Britain's North American colonies, and that sparked the imagination and desires of the preeminent founder of the United States." Once independence was secured, the maps helped shape Washington's "vision of America as 'a rising empire in the New World.'"



The Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson; Yale University Press, 1,561 pages, $65.


new york.JPGFirst published in 1995, this wonderful, one-volume encyclopedia about the city that never sleeps was one of the most successful books in the long history of the Yale University Press, prompting the preparation of this completely updated effort. The World Trade Center no longer anchors the Manhattan skyline, to cite just one major change, and Bernie Madoff was not a household name back then. The E-Z pass hadn't been invented yet either, and the New York Giants hadn't shocked the New England Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl. These are just a few of the 800 entries to be added to the mix, bringing the total to 5,000. Each is written by an acknowledged authority, be it in sports, entertainment, finance, architecture, or art, and each is a delightful little essay in its own right about every manner of New York person, place, institution, and curiosity, spanning pre-history to the present, and covering all five boroughs.This is one of my very favorite reference books, all spiffed up, and relevant as ever.

Thumbnail image for Pat.JPGMy Reading Life, by Pat Conroy; Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 333 pages, $25.

One of America's truly great storytellers, the incomparable Pat Conroy, is also a determined bibliophile--indeed one of the first signings of this delightful paean to reading was held last week at the Captain's Bookshelf in Asheville, NC--so it is no big surprise that he has written a number of essays over the years about his particular passion for books and authors. The fifteen pieces gathered here form a whole of Conroy's reading life thus far, and are a joy to pick up at any point. "Books are living things, and their task lies in their vows of silence," he writes in one chapter that will be of particular interest to collectors, his association with the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta. (He admits to having bought up to five thousand books there.) "I could build a castle from the words I steal from books I cherish," he writes in a tribute to the librarians of his early childhood. Everything this man of the South writes, he writes from the heart. The bookish drawings by Wendell Minor that garnish these lovely ruminations are a pleasant plus to one of the outstanding books about books of the season.


Jazz.JPGJazz; photographs by Herman Leonard; Bloomsbury, 303 pages, $65.

The black and white jazz photographs of Herman Leonard, shot during the 1940s and '50s have become the stuff of legend. Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Kenny Clark, Stan Getz, Modern Jazz Quartet--they're all here in this definitive collection, a veritable feast of musical images. "He was a master of jazz," music historian K. Heather Pinson wrote earlier this year on the occasion of Leonard's death at the age of 87, "except his instrument was a camera."


Ellis.jpgFirst Family: Abigail and John Adams, by Joseph J. Ellis; Alfred A. Knopf, 299 pages, $27.95.

Give Joseph Ellis all the credit in the world for committing his considerable skills to a fresh evaluation of the correspondence exchanged between John and Abigail Adams over the course of their marriage during what we can all agree were eventful times, and for demonstrating how the 1,200 surviving letters of theirs constitute "a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor, more revealing than any other correspondence between a prominent American husband and wife in American history." David McCullough made full use of these same letters in his magisterial biography of John Adams a decade ago, though the canvas there was monumental. Here, it is focused strictly on the remarkable relationship as revealed through the letters. The writing, of course, is superb, as always, and a joy to engage.


Morris.jpgRobert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, by Charles Rappleye; Simon & Schuster, 625 pages, $30.

Collectors of Americana know Robert Morris as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and covet examples of his autograph accordingly, but chances are that few know much about the Philadelphia entrepreneur's role in the founding of the Republic. According to historian Charles Rappleye, Morris was unsurpassed in his efforts to fund the rebellion; after the war, he served in the Continental Congress and United States Senate, and was the first Superintendent of Finance, or treasury secretary. His methods were not always above reproach, however, and a dramatic downfall led to a resounding fall from grace. All in all a ripe prospect for a modern biography, which Morris gets in this thorough examination of his life.


Madison and Jefferson.jpgMadison and Jefferson, by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg; Random House, 809 pages, $35.

Dual biographies can be problematic undertakings, but Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, both respected historians and the authors separately of other books on early America, have combined here to produce a most readable account of a fifty-year friendship, perhaps one of the most consequential acquaintances in American history. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Virginians who each served as President of the United States, we all know that, but their relationship, as profiled here, was as much symbiosis as it was mentor-protégé. Burstein and Isenberg had made a significant contribution to the literature of our Founding Fathers.


Beetle.jpgBeetle: The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith, by D. K. R. Crosswell; University Press of Kentucky, 1,008 pages, $39.95.

You could almost regard this huge biography as a bookend to the Morris volume cited above in that it looks at a significant player in American history who pretty much excelled away from the spotlight, in this case as Chief of Staff during World War II to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the consummate military man, Ike was legendary for delegating authority to key officers, and the aide who rode herd on all of them was Walter Bedell Smith. In 1950, Smith was Harry Truman's choice to head the CIA in 1950; three years later, his former boss, by then president, named him Undersecretary of State, in which capacity he oversaw the partitioning of Vietnam into two nations, and implemented a plan for a coup d'etat in Guatemala. This is the first biography of his life, one long overdue.


exquisite.pngEncyclopedia of the Exquisite: An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights, by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins; Nan Talese/Doubleday, 311 pages, $27.95.

No big surprise that Jessica Kerwin, writer for Vogue, thanks "legions of librarians" in the acknowledgments she appends to this charmingly eclectic compendium, given the wealth of arcania on subjects ranging from the balloon adventures of the Montgolfier Brothers in the eighteenth century, to the history of women's lingerie, to the tradition of dining outdoors known as alfresco. It is, in short, an encyclopedia of very interesting things, and the documentation is impressive. The writing is elegant, the style accessible; altogether a fun book.

Looking for some stocking stuffers? Here are five beauties I particularly recommend, with more to follow in the weeks to come.

venice.JPG Venice: Pure City, by Peter Ackroyd; Nan Talese/Doubleday, 403 pages, $37.50. Writing about the life of a city as if it were a living, breathing organism is a specialty of the estimable English writer Peter Ackroyd, his "London: The Biography" of a few years back being an exemplar of the form; with "Venice: Pure City," he offers a worthy companion. As a place seemingly set apart from the rest of Italy--Venice is a cluster of islands in a lagoon, really--the city's insularity has given it a degree of independence. "The Italians do not really think of Venice at all," Ackroyd writes, "it belongs to some other realm of fancy or of artifice." His blend of detail and atmosphere is always in perfect balance, his narrative skill apparent in every chapter.

I am delighted to report the publication of two books that I have been eager for some time to see appear between hard covers, having had the opportunity to know a bit about them beforehand, and to have had communication with each of the authors as they were works-in-progress. Happily, they are everything I expected they would be, gracefully written in both instances, wisely reasoned, and a genuine pleasure to read.


BlackBerry.JPGHamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers; Harper, 267 pages, $24.99.


A former staff writer and media critic for the Washington Post, William Powers
has written extensively on every manner of communications technology, developing the premise of this book--and coming up with the splendid title--while a Fellow at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press in 2006. Powers is exceedingly savvy when it comes to navigating his way about the digital world, and while he is not about to abandon its wondrous applications in any way, shape, or form, he has chosen to step back a bit, take a deep breath, and pay attention to the wisdom of our cultural forebears. "The interior struggle" of "information overload," he writes--the phrase was presciently coined in the 1970s by Alvin Toffler--"is having a dramatic impact in our personal and family relationships." Constant connectivity with the entire world--text messages, cellphones, video streams--leads him to ask the fundamental question: "What is the point anyway?" This is neither a preachy polemic nor a boring diatribe, and while he calls on Plato, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and others for guidance, he does so with style, humility and elan. "Every space is what you make it," he concludes. "But in the end, building a good life isn't about where you are. It's about how you decide to think and live. Place your index finger on your temple and tap twice. It's all in there." Links to various reviews and broadcast interviews are available on Powers' website.


Pradeep2.jpg
The Groaning Shelf and Other Instances of Book Love, by Pradeep Sebastian; Hachette India, 295 pages, 12.99 GBP ($20 US).


A well-known literary columnist in India whose many pieces for major publications are available on the Internet, Pradeep Sebastian has entered the books about books genre in impressive fashion, with a very nice collection of his erudite pieces on a striking variety of subjects, many of them previously published in different form, though a few--including a generous profile of yours truly he calls "The Collector of Collectors"--appearing here for the first time. How can a reader of the Fine Books blog not be simpatico with someone who makes this admission: "Holding a book but not actually reading it gave me time (and put me in the mood) to reflect on the act of reading and the physicality of the book; the book as material object." Or someone whose favorite Sunday afternoon ritual is take volumes off his groaning shelves and rearrange them in a new order? "Should I abandon the by-author arrangement and categorize them by subject matter?" Very heavy concerns, indeed. The book has just been released by the India division of Hachette, parent company of Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt. It should be available in U.S. outlets shortly; for now it can be ordered through Amazon.UK.

Casanova.jpgThe news this week that the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris had acquired the manuscript memoirs of the great eighteenth-century Venetian lothario known to one and all as Casanova--Tiger Woods can only dream of walking in this guy's remarkable footsteps--brought to mind a very nice book published a decade ago by Louisiana State University Press, Casanova Was a Book Lover: And Other Naked Truths and Provocative Curiosities about the Writing, Selling, and Reading of Books. This smart collection of bibliophilic essays was written by John Maxwell Hamilton, an occasional commentator on NPR and dean of LSU's School of Mass Communications; you have to love a book that is dedicated to "all reviewers," and includes the explanation that "only ungrateful asses would pan a book after having it dedicated to them."  

Hamilton's title piece took irreverent note of the fact that Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798) spent the final years of his eventful life as a librarian in the household of Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein of Bohemia, and it was in that dreary castle that he took pen to paper and wrote Histoire de ma vie, the racy memoirs for which he became famous, and which an anonymous benefactor acquired on behalf of the French National Library (BNF). Though the actual purchase price was not disclosed, the figure was widely reported to be five million euros, about $9 million, which, if correct, would qualify it as the costliest manuscript transaction on record. The papers--comprising 3,700 pages of yellowing sheets--were transfered Monday to the BNF in thirteen boxes, and represent the complete, uncensored account of Casanova's amorous adventures. The material had been owned since 1821 by the Brauckhuas publishing company in Germany, and was once thought to have been destroyed in World War II; it was later found safely stored in a bank vault.

Overdue.JPGFor those truly interested in the role of librarians, especially those coping with so many seismic changes brought on by the twenty-first century, I heartily recommend a new release from HarperCollins, This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, $24.99, by Marilyn Johnson. A staff writer for Life magazine. Johnson says that she first became interested in the subject while doing research for her first book, a well received examination of obituaries wryly titled The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. "With the exception of a few showy eccentrics, like the former solder in Hitler's army who had a sex change and took up professional whistling, the most engaging obit subjects were librarians."

Before long she was fully involved in the world of these wonderful professionals whose sole goal in life, it seems, is to provide knowledge and information to others. Johnson's coinage of the word "cybarian" takes note of the changing nature of the business, and of the many ways the people she proceeded to spend so much time with have adapted to the new technologies. She describes the modern librarian as a person whose job is to "create order out of the confusion of the past, even as she enables us to blast into the future."

The result is a most enthusiastic book that is great fun to read (and one which, I feel bound to disclose, makes generous mention of several books that I have written.) Its greatest contribution, I think, is that it pays tribute to an essential public service that so many government officials blithely feel can be cut at will during budgetary crises, reductions made especially easy for them to impose since these temples of wisdom have no well-heeled lobbyists throwing corporate money around to champion their cause. The epigraph to one of Johnson's chapters says it best: "In tough times, a librarian is a terrible thing to waste."
I have a couple more gift-book suggestions to propose, each one a recent arrival that came in too late to make my holiday roundup published earlier this month in Fine Books & Collections, but which I offer now as last-minute recommendations.

Girouard.JPGElizabethan Architecture: Its Rise and Fall, 1540-1640, by Mark Girouard; New Haven, Yale University Press, 516 pages, $65.

Mark Girouard is internationally admired for several accessible books on architecture, most famously the best-seller Live in the English Country House. This latest effort of his has all the makings of monumentally about it--a grand subject, handled by an acknowledged authority in the field, and published sumptuously in a beautiful edition. The many considerations take in social structure, craftsmanship, patronage, continental influence, and of course execution. This copiously illustrated production is published in conjunction with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

JazzLoft.jpgThe Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith From 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965, by Sam Stephenson; Alfred A. Knopf, 268 pages, $40.

The New York jazz scene that burst forth in a constellation of brilliance in the 1950s and '60s, with such names as Miles Davis, Theolonius Monk, Johnny Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, and Bill Evans, is at the heart of this rich selection of material culled from the archive of the photographer W. Eugene Smith, who spent eight years documenting the rich culture, exposing 1,447 rolls of film comprising some 40,000 images, in the process. His base of operations was 821 Sixth Avenue, in the heart of the flower district. Sam Stephenson spent thirteen years going through the archive, now housed at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

ClassicToys.jpgClassic Toys of the National Toy Hall of Fame: A Celebration of the Greatest Toys of All Time, by Scott G. Eberle; Philadelphia, Running Press, 264 pages, $29.95.

What kind of great stuff is in the National Toy Hall of Fame--yes, Virginia, there is such a creature, happily installed in the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York--is the subject of this evocative treat. G. I Joe, the Hula Hoop, the Radio Flyer, Barbie dolls, Crayola crayons and Monopoly games, of course, but Erector sets, Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs, and Jumbo Jacks as well, quite a feast here for the young at heart. A nice text puts it all in context; a very useful reference for toy collectors, needless to say.

GreekPoets.jpgThe Greek Poets: Homer to the Present, edited by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley, and Karen van Dyck; New York, W. W. Norton, 692 pages, $39.95.

A rich canon of Greek poetry, epic, drama, and lyric--even some few precious lines that survive only in fragments--are gathered in this fat anthology of 1,000 poems that spans the centuries, many of them newly translated, and appearing in English for the first time. Four eras are defined: Classical Antiquiry, Byzantium, Early Modern, and Twentieth Century. Some 186 artists in all, Homer, Sappho, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides at one extreme, Nikos Gatsos, Odysseus Elytis, Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis at another. Quite a bounty.

China.jpgChina, principal photography by Ming Tan, edited by Guang Guo; New York, Abbeville Press, 244 pages, slipcased with a numbered print, $235.

Of all the books you might pick up showcasing the natural wonders and architectural landmarks of China, you will be hard pressed to top this truly panoramic effort, which really has pulled out all the stops in pursuit of elegance. Yes, the book is enormous--12 pounds, 18 inches by 12 inches, with a dozen gatefold spreads that open up to 44 inches, almost four feet in width, and is justified by the subject matter--the Himalayas, the Great Wall, the terracotta army of the First Qin Emperor among them. It is an amazing piece of bookmaking, not many of examples of which you are likely to see these days. The photography is crisp and beautifully reproduced, a generous gift for anyone whose passion is the history and culture of the Middle Kingdom.

VaticanBasilica.jpgThe Vatican and Saint Peter's Basilica of Rome, by Pavl Letarovilly; New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 320 pages, $125.

First published posthumously in three volumes in 1882, this remarkable suite of intricate architectural drawings of the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica was executed by Paul-Marie Letarovilly (1795-1855), "an acute, opinionated architect and a superb draftsman who devoted most of his professional life to a single massive enterprise: drawing and publishing the architecture of Rome from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries,"  Ingrid Rowland writes in the forward to this elegant new facsimile edition; it is published in conjunction with the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, and the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame.
History in the grand tradition--including one new edition of a classic written 2,500 years ago--comprise my choices for this current batch of new releases, each one worthy of your attention.

emplib.JPGEmpire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, by Gordon S. Wood; New  York, Oxford University Press, 778 pages, $35.

Gordon S. Wood, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for The Radicalism of the American Revolution, here offers a painstaking account of the United States of America during its first quarter-century, a continuum that takes in the formation of the Republic and the beginning of nationhood under the Constitution, and follows through to the War of 1812. It is a period, as David M. Kennedy, general editor of the Oxford History of the United States--of which this is the latest installment (three earlier titles in the series have also won Putlizers)--was an "astonishingly volatile, protean movement that lay between the achievement of national independence and the emergence of a swiftly maturing mass democracy and modern economy in the Jacksonian era." Wood's approach takes in politics, law, the economy and popular culture, and anticipates the great battle that will divide the country by the middle of the nineteenth century. One ominous note at book's end is the realization that despite Northern opposition, slavery was stronger in 1815 than it had been in 1789. Wood's effort--30 years in the making--has all the earmarks of being a standard work.

Keegan.JPGThe American Civil War: A Military History, by John Keegan; New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 396 pages,$35.

In more than twenty books over the past half-century, the British scholar John Keegan has established himself as the outstanding military historian of his generation, with several of his works, most notably The Face of Battle, The Second World War, The Mask of Command,  The Price of Admiralty and A History of Warfare, acclaimed as classics in their own time. In his last book, Keegan offered a cogent analysis of the Iraq War; now, he applies his outstanding grasp on the nature of human conflict to offer a fresh evaluation of the American Civil War. He opens thusly: "I began an earlier book with the sentence 'The First World War was a cruel and unnecessary war.' The American Civil War, with which it stands comparison, was also certainly cruel, both in the suffering it inflicted on the participants and the anguish it caused to the bereaved at home. But it was not unnecessary." Among the numerous areas he explores are psychology, ideology, and demographics, but most tellingly, the role of geography in the unfolding course of the war. One of the more astonishing findings: "about 10,000 battles, large and small, were fought in the United States between 1861 and 1865. This enormous number of battles, seven for every day the war lasted, provides the principal key to the nature of the war. Americans fought as frequently as they did in the Civil War because they could find no other way to prosecute the conflict. Economic warfare, excepting blockage, was not an option."

Dickstein.JPGDancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein; New York, W. W. Norton, 598 pages, $29.95.

A great deal has been written about the long national nightmare of the Great Depression, with numerous interpretations offered as to its causes, concerns made especially relevant by the recent downturn in the economy that has had many people recalling the bad old days. But none, to my knowledge, have taken on the subject in a true cultural sense--the films, the novels, the architecture, the music, the photography, the penetrating images that continue to resonate of those dark days. Morris Dickstein, professor of English and theater at CUNY Graduate Center in New York and author previously of Gates of Eden and Leopards in the Temple has fashioned a remarkable narrative of the times that is a model of interdisciplinary technique, and a true joy to read. The Empire State Building, Citizen Kane, the Yellow Brick Road, Scarlett O'Hara, the Rockettes, the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, James Agee, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Richard Wright, Bing Crosby's White Christmas--it all fits in, and is all handled seamlessly. Dip into this, and you will quickly appreciate why Norman Mailer called Dickstein "one of our best and most distinguished critics of American literature."

redflag.jpgThe Red Flag: A History of Communism, by David Priestland; New York, Grove Press, 676 pages, $30.

The official publication date for this big book is Nov. 9, the twentieth anniversary of when the Berlin Wall began to come down, the first vital sign that the twentieth century's thunderous experience with Communism was entering its final stages. David Priestland, a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University, offers a sweeping overview of the phenomenon, tracing its roots to the  French Revolution, and carrying it forward into its continuing applications today in China, Cuba, and Korea. All the big names are here--Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara--and many others who are lesser known, but just as compelling. Drawing generously on the wealth of archival materials that have become available in recent years, he is able to offer fresh insights that do not rely entirely on the published works of others. Just as important, he writes in a lively, accessible style that never loses sight of the continuing drama. A massive, admirable effort.


Xenophon.JPGThe Landmark Xenophon's Hellenika, translated by John Marincola, edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York, Pantheon, 579 pages, $40.

This new translation of the ancient historian Xenophon's Hellenika joins earlier editions in the Landmark series of Greek histories by Thucydides and Herodotus, and includes a fabulous selection of maps, annotations, photographs, illustrations and sixteen appendices written by notable classical scholars. This work covers the years between 411 and 362 B.C., a time when relations between Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Persia were extremely volatile. A student of Socrates, Xenophon was an Athenian who first served in the expedition against the Persian King Artaxerxes II, and later joined the Spartan army.
A little bit of something for everyone with this quartet--solid nonfiction, a scholarly biography, a charming novel, a new selection of poetry from the work of a grand master. Fall, indeed, is here, and the new releases not only are plentiful, but remarkably rich, surprisingly so, given all this noise we've been hearing lately about good books being in decline, and publishers cutting back on their lists. Can't prove it by me.

TracKid.JPGStrength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness, by Tracy Kidder; Random House, New York, 277 pages, $26.

Tracy Kidder has to be ranked among the best writers of literary nonfiction out there, one of the few authors who you can pretty much say, time after time, is not going to disappoint you with his latest effort. No surprise, then, to report that this, his eighth book, may well be his best--which is saying quite a bit, when you consider that his earlier efforts have included The Soul of New Machine, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Home Town, and Old Friends, and that his honors include the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and Robert F. Kennedy Award. The story can be summarized briefly--a young man comes to New York from Burundi in 1994 with $200 in his pocket, a survivor of the horrific civil wars that have decimated his country, no English-speaking skills at all, but filled with hope and grit. Two years later, he enrolls in Columbia University without so much as a green card to his name, his story not only one of survival and hope, but one of tenacity, decency and good will that will lead him on to medical school and a life filled with purpose. It's a great tale, of course, and Kidder is one terrific reporter.

JoanArcJp.jpgThe Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc, by Larissa Juliet Taylor; New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 251 pages, $30.

As historical figures go, I can think of no other individual who has achieved the kind of iconic stature accorded in death to Joan of Arc (1412-1431), the peasant girl from Domremy variously cast as saint, sorcerer, soldier, lunatic, witch, gifted leader, and martyr in the seven centuries that have elapsed since her execution by the English, and her subsequent passage into sainthood. Larissa Juliet Taylor, a history professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, has written a splendid  biography of the young woman that takes a fresh look at the original sources--which survive in abundance--and presents a full, rich examination of the person and the many myths that grew around her. Just as interesting is the informed look Taylor offers into medieval life.



NickBaker.JPGThe Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker; New York, Simon & Schuster, 243 pages, $25.

I was planning on taking this one along with me on a flight I'm making tomorrow out to Columbus, Ohio--I'm speaking at a meeting of the Ohio Preservation Council on Thursday, and will file a report here in due course--but wound up getting absorbed in it beforehand, and read it straight through. So it goes. What impresses me most about Nicholson Baker, I think, is the easy facility he has for going back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, sort of the way David Halberstam used to do one big work of cultural history, then treat himself to a change of pace with a book about sports. I don't know which form is more relaxing for Baker, though I would suspect it is the novel. His latest here is a fun book, especially for those among us who are fascinated by the creative process. Baker's narrator is a middle-aged poet named Paul Chowder who is trying like the dickens to write an introduction to a new anthology of poetry--rhyming poetry, no less--and finds himself blocked. The ruminations are witty, as always, a delight to read, and the celebration it offers of poetry most welcome. The voice is spot on here, vintage Baker.

WallaceStev.jpgWallace Stevens: Selected Poems, a new selection edited by John N. Serio. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 326 pages, $30.

With this volume we go from a novel that considers the creation of poetry to an actual poet who not only excelled at the craft, but tried his level best to explain it to others. "No other poet I  know of has written so elegantly and so persuasively about the beauty and significance of poetry in everyday life," writes John N. Serio, a noted scholar of the great American poet, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). "The imagination--frequently synonymous with the act of the mind, or poetry, for Stevens--is what gives life its savor, its sanction, its sacred quality." This generous selection of the Reading, Pennsylvania, native's work--published to mark the 130th anniversary of his birth--will delight those familiar with his work, and encourage newcomers to thirst for more. Kudos to the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for its commitment to publishing great poetry in beautiful, superbly edited editions.

September is right around the corner, and the new books for fall are starting to trickle in from the publishers. Among those that have caught my fancy--and which, I believe, are richly deserving of your attention--are the following:

SistSinai.jpgThe Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, by Janet Soskice; New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 316 pages, $27.95.

This meticulously researched effort takes what for decades has been an intriguing footnote in the history of textual serendipity, and gives it the full examination it so richly deserves. Janet Soskice, a professor in philosophical theology at Cambridge University, tells the story of Agnes and Margaret Smith, identical twin sisters from Scotland, and their discovery in 1892 at St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt of what was then the earliest known copy of the Gospels--it was a palimpsest that had escaped earlier detection--and how against all accepted convention for two women in Victorian times without university degrees, translated the document from Syriac into English, and secured for themselves a place in the history of biblical scholarship. The story of their spirited adventure on camelback to Mount Sinai where the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery is located makes for an exciting adventure, which Soskice accomplishes with style and aplomb. I am reminded, in this effort, of Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, in which a theretofore ignored interlude in literary history (in that instance an institutionalized killer's manifold contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary), became a breakthrough bestseller. All in all, this is a welcome addition to the books-about-books bookshelf.

FWord.jpgThe F Word, edited by Jesse Sheidlower, foreword by Lewis Black; New York, Oxford University Press, 270 pages, $16.95.

This release is a real challenge to write about in a public forum, but I'm going to give it my best shot because I rather like it, number one, and because the word in question--no ambiguity at all, by the way, about which word we are talking about--is an integral part of our language, and one of the very few I know of that works variously as a noun, verb, adverb, and adjective. (Feel free, please, to use your imagination.) That a compilation like this should come from such a distinguished publishing house as Oxford University Press gives me all the cover I need; that it should now be in its third revised edition, moreover, makes it all the more irresistible. So what, you might ask, is there to learn from this compendium? The word's etymology, for starters--no, it's not an acronym, it's far to old a coinage for that, with roots going back to the fifteenth century, Germany being the likely origin, though the precise progenitor is vague at best. That master wordsmith of all time, William Shakespeare, never used it--the word was decidedly vulgar, even then--though there are numerous allusions and puns in the canon that leave no doubt about what the old rascal had in mind. All in all, this is a scholarly work, though unquestionably with a light tough, and includes dozens of definitions presented in traditional OED style, with illustrative quotations drawn from myriad published sources. Jesse Sheildlower's introductory essay is a superb overview of this truly phenomenal word.

DarArm.jpgDarwin's Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution, by Iain McCalman. New York, W. W. Norton, 423 pages, $29.95.

This has been the bicentennial year of Charles Darwin's birth, an occasion that has brought forth numerous books, a few of which I have noticed in earlier postings. This one, a later release, should not be lost in the deluge. Iain McCalman, a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia, and a past president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, has written an energetic, lively account of evolution that casts a wider net, as it were, and takes in the contributions of Darwin's principal champions, the botanist Joseph Hooker, the the biologist, Thomas Huxley, and the zoologist Alfred Russel Wallace, whose support in the early going was crucial to the reception of his monumental work. McCalman begins with a most engaging account of Darwin's voyage on the Beagle, and describes in highly accessible prose the intellectual process that led to formulation of his theory. Some excellent illustrations are included.

RayCarv.jpgRaymond Carver: Collected Stories, edited by Maureen Carroll. New York, The Library of America, 960 pages, $40.

Every time I think I have exhausted my inventory of superlatives when it comes to the Library of America and what this essential publishing initiative means to our shared culture, a new release comes along that forces me to dig deeper and come up with another. I admit, I am bragging a bit here--but I have every book issued in this series going back to when it started in 1982, close to a150 of them, all kept together in their own book case. It's both a collection for me, and an indispensable resource that I turn to on a regular basis. This latest effort gathers all of Raymond Carver's published stories--"Will You Please Be Quiet, Please", "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," and "Cathedral" among them--along with many of his early sketches, and pieces that were discovered after his death in 1985. A thorough chronology of Carver's life and accomplishments--more like a mini-biography--is included in one of several appendices. Like all the others from LOA, this one's a keeper.
 
In the week that has passed since my last posting, I have exhausted my supply of recreational reading, a circumstance that has occasioned a trip to Parnassas Books, one of my favorite haunts here on the Cape, located on Route 6A in Yarmouthport, now in its fiftieth year at the same location, with many thousands of volumes packed in a three-story building that dates to the 1800s. In an earlier life the structure was home to Knowles General Store, purveyors of every manner of necessity (in years past some of the old-timers could point out where the pickle barrel stood and where the "wet goods"--the liquor--was sold.) I mentioned Parnassus in an entry five months ago, and am pleased to report that my record of always finding something here of interest--and I can date my fist call on bookseller Ben Muse and his wares  to the summer of 1978--remains intact.

archcod.jpgThis time around, the find was not a particularly old book--even though the stock-in-trade at Parnassus is overwhelmingly second-hand books, with a respectable inventory of antiquarian items and a tastefully-chosen selection of new-releases mixed in--but a work I confess I totally missed when it was released two years ago, and am thrilled--dare I say relieved?--to have come across now. How I missed The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity's Greatest Scientist (New York, De Capo Press, 2007), by Reviel Netz and William Noll, I can not fathom. But there it was, on a shelf, at a very good price, and all I can say is better late than never.

Perhaps a little back-story is in order here. One of the key contemporary collectors I had the privilege to profile in A Gentle Madness was Dr. Haskell F. Norman, a San Francisco psychoanalyst who had put together what was renowned to be the outstanding collection of medical and science books assembled by anyone in the twentieth century. A year before his death in 1996, the Grolier Club in New York published One Hundred Books Famous in Medicine, edited by Hope Mayo and based on a 1994 exhibition conceived and organized by Dr. Norman. In his interview with me, Dr. Norman had explained quite precisely why he had chosen to put his books on the market, so when Christie's announced that it would mount a three-part sale in 1998, I was not surprised at all, and decided in fact to attend each session. When all was said and done the books brought in a whopping $18 million, breaking all sorts of sales records in the process.

Though a landmark auction in and of itself--and a great tribute to one of the most decent people I ever had the privilege of meeting (remind me some day to explain what I have come to regard as the "Haskell Norman Moment" in the writing of all of my books)--the final day of the sale, Oct. 29, 1998, was marked by yet another extraordinary book event. Halfway through the bidding for the 501 lots, a time-out, in essence, was called, so that another mini-auction could proceed in and of itself. What was about to go on the block--and a battery of television cameras was set up in the back of the Park Avenue gallery to record it all--was a dingy, dreary-looking little volume that had come to be known as the Archimedes Codex.

On the surface, the book is a medieval manuscript prepared in the thirteenth century for liturgical use in the form of a palimpsest, which once-upon-a-time was a standard method for recycling leaves of parchment by scraping away unwanted writings, and inking them over with a new text. What made this palimpsest especially noteworthy was that it contained the earliest known writings of Archimedes (287-212 B.C.), the greatest mathematician of the ancient world. In a fast-moving exchange of bids, an anonymous American buyer outbid a representative of the Greek government, which had hoped to bring the document back to its native land, paying $2.2 million, the most money ever spent, Nicolas Barker would later quip, "for a text that can not be read with the naked eye."

The Archimedes Codex begins, dramatically enough, with the Christie's sale, and continues on with what becomes a thrilling account of traditional scholarship and modern technology, written by William Noel, curator of manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, who  headed up a research team of scholars and conservators known as the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, and Reviel Netz, a professor classics and philosophy at Stanford.Their efforts--fully supported and underwritten by the new owner, coyly referred to as Mr. B--resulted in the discovery of several previously undiscovered Archimedes writings, Balancing Planes, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems, and the Stomachion. The manuscript also contained some lost speeches by Hyperides, a noted orator of ancient times.

Addressing complaints from some quarters that such an important manuscript had not found a permanent home in an institution, Noel offers this: "When the Archimedes Palimpsest was sold, some scholars were outraged that the book had returned to a private collection. But if Archimedes had meant enough to the public, then public institutions would have bought it. Archimedes did not. Public institutions were offered the book at a lower price than it actually fetched at auction, and they turned it down. If you think that is a shame, then it is a shame that we all share. We live in a world where value translates into cash. If you care about what happens to world heritage, get political about it, and be prepared to pay for it."

Once again, a collector came to the rescue. This is a great read, and since January, available in a new paperback edition.
The Silk Road, sex and World War II, both behind closed doors, and fascinating curiosities of literature--what could be better for a week that begins in the satisfying aftermath of a three-game sweep  of the New York Yankees by the Red Sox at Fenway Park. With the Celtics and the Bruins more than holding their own in the playoffs, it's a great time to be a Boston sports fan. Between innings, however, and on travel days for the others, there remains plenty of down time to dip into some really good books.

Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present,
by Christopher I. Beckwith; Princeton University Press, 472 page, $35.

EmpSilk.jpgA region often overlooked in the grand continuum of world history--a huge, landlocked part of the world between Europe and Asia that has been home to such empires as those of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and the Mongols, Tamerlane and the Timurads, the Anatolians, the Tibetans, and the Scythians--is given its just due in this majestic work that spans a sweep of five thousand years, from the Bronze Age to the present. In the process, Christopher Beckwith, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, tackles a number of misconceptions, not least among them that the peoples of an international trading network in Central Eurasia known collectively as the Silk Road were primarily nomadic, warfaring, barbarous and generally slothful groups. Indeed, he argues that for several critical centuries in the development of global civilization--and despite incursions by Persians, Greeks, Arabs, and Chinese, among others--Central Eurasia led the world in science, economics, and the arts. In the process of illuminating this essential piece of the human past, Beckwick constructs a scrupulously researched narrative that is wholly accessible, and demands close attention.

Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, by Thomas Maier; Basic Books, 411 pages, $27.50

MastSex.jpgIf the subject is about how a single book has the power to impact the way people think and comport themselves in intimate relationships, then you have to include the release in 1966 of Human Sexual Response by William Masters and Virginia Johnson, a blockbuster with international consequences that was followed four years later by a powerful followup, Human Sexual Inadequacy. Prior to these books, what people knew about the mechanics of sexual relationships came from text books. Their first-hand reports of human sexuality, reported clinically in their books--Masters and Johnson observed 10,000 sexual acts in pursuit of their data--changed the entire paradigm. Thomas Maier--the biographer previously of another inhabitant of this exclusive group of attitude-changing authors, the baby doctor Dr. Benjamin Spock--has written a compelling profile of the two pioneers that concentrates on their own relationship and working patterns. Altogether a fascinating book.

World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis, and the West, by Laurence Rees; Pantheon Books, 442 pages, $35.

ReesArt.JPGAs creative director for the BBC, documentary filmmaker Laurence Rees has produced several television series on war and the atrocities that usually follow, including "The Nazis: A Warning from History," ""War of the Century," "Horror in the East," and "Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution.'"  He also is the author of five books on the same subjects, and was the recipient three years ago of the British Book Award for History . This effort--which is being released to coincide with a PBS series that will air on three successive Wednesdays beginning May 6--draws on the testimony of more than a hundred witnesses to the events which had been kept secret for decades, only available recently since the opening of the archives of the former Soviet Union. Though not likely to alter prevailing evaluations of the war, the book does offer fresh insights on the relationship between Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill.




Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers, by John Sutherland, illustrations by Mark Rowson; Skyhorse Publishing, 273 pages, $22.95.

CuriosLit.jpgLast--but not by any means least--we have this thoroughly engaging compendium of literary arcania (and plenty of significa as well) to salute. British academic John Sutherland has culled every manner of primary source to unearth such nuggets as the longest novel in the English language (Samuel Richardson's "Clarissa," c. 1 million words), an interesting enough fact in its own right, but for him the springboard for a learned essay that explores the phenomenon of "writing long" in depth, citing Stephen King's "The Stand" (464,216 words) and Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy" (591,554) as particularly egregious examples of tomes that require, as a condition of being read, the development of "considerable upper body strength." In a chapter he calls "The Body of Literature," Sutherland tells of the battle among provincial forces for the right to bury the corpse of Thomas Hardy, with a compromise finally being hammered out that provided for the novelist's remains to be divided among home-town loyalists in Stinsford--they got the heart--and Westminster Abbey, which got the cremated ashes of what was left. Similarly, Lord Byron's heart was interred at Missolonghi, where the swashbuckling Romantic died in defense of Greek independence, while his body--too carnal, apparently, for sacred interment in the sanctity of Poet's Corner--was laid to rest in the family vault. This is a really fun book, and smartly written to boot. Highly recommended.

A couple of trips to South Carolina, Texas, and Maine have given me the opportunity to read a number of fun novels while traveling, which I will write about, I promise, in an upcoming entry, but first these worthwhile works of nonfiction, all recent releases, and each deserving of your attention.

First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process,
by Robert D. Richardson; University of Iowa Press, 112 pages, $19.95.

EmersonIowa.JPGWinner of the Bancroft Prize two years ago for "William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism," and the Francis Parkman Prize in 1996 for "Emerson: Mind on Fire," Robert D. Richardson is one of the outstanding literary biographers at work today. This taut, beautifully written monograph explores the relationship between the voracious reading habits of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the thoughtful sessions of writing that followed. He draws the title from an essay Emerson wrote in The American Scholar. "First we eat, then we beget; first we read, then we write." Richardson reports how Emerson--taking his cue from Coleridge--identified four classes of reader: the hourglass, that gives back everything it takes in, unchanged; the sponge, that gives back everything it takes in, only a little dirtier; the jelly-bag, which squeezes out the valuable and keeps the worthless, and the Golconda, which runs everything through a sieve, keeping only the nuggets. He saw himself, needless to say, as a Golconda.

All the Art That's Fit to Print (And Some that Wasn't): Inside the New York Times Op-Ed Page, by Jerelle Kraus; Columbia University Press, 260 pages, $34.95.

OpEdArt.JPGBefore there was a blogosphere to serve as a gathering place for multiple thoughts and commentary, there was the Op-Ed Page, introduced by the New York Times in 1970, and now a staple in newspapers everywhere. As an art editor at the Times for thirty years--thirteen of them with the Op-Ed Page--Jerelle Kraus worked with the many non-staff artists who were commissioned to execute original drawings for the section, a good number of them, as we discover here, never published, some because they were found too offensive--or too cutting-edge--for the newspaper's top editors. This splendidly produced, over-sized effort--and it could comfortably grace the most discriminating of coffee tables--reproduces many of the works that never got onto the streets; Kraus explains that she was able to print these pictures because they are not the property of the Times, but the artists who drew them. "A rich trove of censored graphic treasures appears in this book for the first time," she writes. Her history of the page, and its contributors, is must reading for those of us who begin each day with the Times immediately at hand.

Carolina Clay: The Legend of the Slave Potter Dave, by Leonard Todd; W. W. Norton,  316 pages, $25.95.

CarolinaClay.JPGAuthor Leonard Todd first learned of the slave potter known as Dave in 2000 while reading an account of an exhibition of the man's work. Known for having created some magnificent jugs and storage jars while living as a slave in South Carolina,  Dave was attracting considerable attention by virtue of his having signed his name and scrawled lines of original verse on many of the pieces he had fashioned by hand, quite an accomplishment since it was illegal for blacks to read or write in much of the South before the Civil War. A native of Edgefield, SC, where Dave had lived and worked, Todd soon learned that the man at one time had been the property of his ancestors, prompting him to embark on an exhaustive investigation into the man's life and times, which he details here, in this fascinating book. Todd also includes a thorough discussion of Dave's clever couplets.

Mathematical Works Printed in the Americas, 1554-1700, by Bruce Stanley Burdick; Johns Hopkins University Press, 373 pages, $55.

Mathematical.jpgRarely do we think of the earliest printed works in the Americas being mathematical texts, since most scholarly works for use in the Colonies were imported from Europe, though quite a body of interesting titles, it turns out, were produced in Mexico, Peru, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York, among other places.This learned work, ostensibly an annotated bibliography, offers a number of surprises that students and collectors of mathematical books and books of science will find particularly useful.



With all the gloomy news about the publishing industry cutting back drastically on worthwhile releases in the face of pressing economic times--take a look at the most recent developments at one major New York house, where a new imprint devoted to pop culture and entertainment has been announced--it is gratifying to report on some fabulous books being released this spring that are truly worth spending valuable time with (dare I say, too, actually "worth the paper they're printed on"?).

A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, by Elaine Showalter; Alfred A. Knopf, 586 pages, $30.

Showalter.jpgI admit I'm a sucker for books about books, and that I am particularly partial to trenchant works of literary biography and literary criticism, especially when new ground is clearly being broken. Elaine Showalter, professor emerta from Princeton University and author previously of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from From Bronte to Lessing (Princeton University Press, 1977), a standard work, now offers a penetrating history of American women writers in America, as the subtitle states, from the early seventeenth century, up to the present moment (a nice touch, that--Anne to Annie.)

"I believe that American women writers no longer need special constituted juries, softened judgment, unspoken agreements, or suppression of evidence in order to stand alongside the greatest artists in our literary heritage," she writes, explaining her purpose. "What keeps literature alive, meaningful to read, and exciting to reach isn't unstinting approval or unanimous admiration, but rousing argument and robust debate."

Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships, by Tom D. Crouch; Johns Hopkins University Press, 191 pages, $35.

AirBalloon.jpgThis copiously illustrated overview of lighter than air aviation chronicles an adventurous period in human accomplishment with style and insight, focusing on the earliest attempts to take flight by way of inflated envelopes, with two French paper-makers, the brothers Jacques-Etienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, leading the way in the 1780s. "Why did it take so long to learn to fly?" Tom Crouch, curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, asks.  "The Greek philosopher Archimedes (287-212 BC) explained the basic principle of buoyant flight more than twenty centuries before human beings first took the sky aboard balloons." He offers a fascinating account of the thrilling quest for human flight.

Babylon.jpgBabylon, edited by I. L. Finkel and M. J. Seymour; Oxford University Press, 238 pages, $40.

Few names from antiquity conjure up images of exotic mystery and curiosity more than biblical Babylon, the city of the wondrous Hanging Gardens,the Tower of Babel, King Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel in the Lion's Den, the Ishtar Gate, despite the passage of 2,500 years since its fall. Located on the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now war-torn Iraq, what remains of the vanished city today are mostly dim memories and second-hand accounts passed on by such historians as Herodotus and Ctesias, and, of course, a range of exquisite artifacts that have been recovered over the years and removed to a number of great museums.

Irving Finkel and Michael Seymour have edited this comprehensive catalog issued in conjunction with what by all accounts has been a dazzling exhibition at the British Museum in London (it closes on March 15), showcasing treasures from numerous collections, the BM's, of course, but also twenty-three other lenders, including the Louvre in Paris and the Vorderasiatisches in Berlin. "Babylon, in all its manifestations," they write, "is at once remote to us and all around us. Like no other city, its history has become bound up with legend."

History buffs, art buffs, and archaeology buffs alike with love this book.
I hope you all take a few minutes to read my tribute to Abe Lincoln in the February issue of Fine Books & Collections, just issued in time to observe the bicentennial of the sixteenth president's birth, which has occasioned the release of numerous new books, many of them for children. But I would be remiss if I failed to point out that Feb. 12 is also the two hundredth birthday of Charles Darwin, and that he, too, is the subject of numerous new books and biographies being published to recognize his manifold accomplishments.

Two I heartily recommend:

Richard Yates, the author of the critically acclaimed novel "Revolutionary Road," died in 1992 at the age of 66, a good three years before Amazon.com sold its first book online, and redefined forever the way people around the world would go about shopping for so much of their bookish needs.
richard_yates.jpg
Richard Yates, photo by Thomas Victor


As of 11:30 this morning, Amazon ranked  the special "movie tie-in" paperback edition of "Revolutionary Road" (Vintage Contemporaries, $14.95) at 46 on its list of top sellers--a list that includes, by rank, millions of available titles--and pegged the just-issued one-volume hardcover edition of "Revolutionary Road, "The Easter Parade," and "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" (Everyman's Library/Knopf, $26) at 656. Sales figures for paperback editions of Yates's other books are equally robust, a circumstance that would undoubtedly have caused this man universally admired during his lifetime as a "writer's writer" to smile with wry amusement at the fickleness of it all.

I'm sure, too, that Yates would smile at the success of the film version of his 1961 novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and while he might grouse over a beer or two at his favorite haunt in Boston's Back Bay--the Crossroads Irish Pub at 495 Beacon St--about the movie's being snubbed this week for an Oscar nomination, he would quickly point out that he didn't write the filmscript, somebody else did.

Much has been made in recent years of the fact that not one of Yates's books ever sold more than 12,000 copies in his lifetime, a circumstance regarded as especially egregious for a man who contemporaries such as William Styron, Alfred Kazin , Robert Stone, and Andre Dubus looked up to as a model of perfection. This irksome paradox, in fact, was one of the central points of a discussion I had with Yates on Dec. 17, 1981, in Boston.

We got together that day to discuss the recent release of "Liars in Love," Yates's seventh book, and his first collection of stories since "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" had been published some twenty years earlier. In the newspaper column I later wrote, I riffed at some length on such concepts as literary respect and commercial success, and quoted a piece from Saturday Review that had described Yates as a writer with "astonishing skill and a robust intelligence," a craftsman whose "prose is urbane yet sensitive, with passion and irony held deftly in balance." How was it possible, I wondered--and I asked Yates this directly--that so many critics and authors held him in such high esteem, while the buying public, for the most part, had no idea at all who he was.

Yates thought for a few moments and took a sip of his beer before answering. Being called a "writer's writer" pleased him a great deal, to be sure, but "I'd much rather be known as a reader's writer, and I don't mean for the money or the fame," he said. "It's having the reader that counts. It is indeed painful not to have as many readers as I'd like. If you asked me how to go about writing a best seller, I'd say I haven't the slightest idea. What I do when I write is to sharpen a lot of pencils and do the best I can."

We covered a lot of ground in that interview--in fact, I'll be getting the entire piece posted on my web site later in the week, so check back in a couple days, if you're interested in reading it--but the final quote I used as my kicker is the one that lingers with me. I asked him what it was about the human condition that drove him to develop so many sad and lonely characters. "Perhaps," he said, "because sad and lonely people are more interesting than happy people. Loneliness does not mean just physical loneliness. I would think it means a sense of being separated from the main stream of the world."

yates_inscription.jpgTowards the end of our long liquid lunch I asked Dick Yates to inscribe my copy of "Liars in Love," which he did most generously, and which I include herewith.

Needless to say, I very quickly became a zealous Dick Yates collector, and given the relative disinterest in his books at the time, had no trouble acquiring first edition copies of all of his books in fine condition, and at very good prices. His best known effort remains "Revolutionary Road," which was shortlisted for the National Book Award given in 1962 for work published in 1961, along with Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," J. D. Salinger's "Franny and Zooey," Bernard Malamud's "A New Life," William Maxwell's "The Chateau," Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories," and the winner that year--in my view one of the truly outstanding years in the annals of American fiction--Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer."

For the record, I paid $50 for my copy of "Revolutionary Road." A search of abebooks.com this morning shows four first edition copies available for sale: one, inscribed, is going for $6,500; two good-plus copies, without signatures, list for $800 and $900 respectively. Now that kind of approbation, I assure you, would please Dick Yates in no small measure.
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.

Recent Comments

  • A. Tucholke: Ebooks make me sad. read more
  • Nate Pedersen: Thanks for the reminder, Elizabeth. Here is the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQKfHMR4mwE read more
  • Rebecca Rego Barry: Hello Harold, Looks like the URL has changed. They are read more
  • Harold: If one goes to the link provided we are shown read more
  • Elizabeth Foxwell: Don't forget the fine 1992 film of _Enchanted April_ with read more
Enter your email address:
Delivered by FeedBurner