What Makes a Book “Neglected”?

January 19th, 2009

D. G. Myers, associate professor of English and religious studies, just posted a fine and admiring review of John Fante’s novel, Full of Life on his always interesting A Commonplace Blog. In passing along a link to the post, he remarked, “I don’t know whether a book is ‘neglected’ if it is still in print, but this is not usually said to be even his best novel (although it is).”

A few years after setting up this site may be a bit too late to get around to defining its fundamental concept, but I thought I would take a moment to disclose the personal preferences that guide my selection of books to feature.

With an occasional exception, I focus on books that are out of print–and out of print for ten years or more. There are a number of fine publishers–Persephone Books, Pushkin Press, Crippen & Landru, and, of course, New York Review Books, to name just a few–that are doing a service to past, present, and future by discovering and reissuing a wide variety of books that have been out of print or just out of the mainstream for years or decades. And I do them all a disservice in not announcing their each and every release and regularly selecting a few for in-depth discussion.

But one of the privileges that comes with doing the work to create the content for this site and pay the bill for hosting it is the right to chose what I do and don’t cover. This is one of my hobbies. I wish it was profitable enough or my needs simple enough that it could be a vocation, but for the foreseeable future, I will have a day job to hold down, kids to raise, and no shortage of other time commitments. So I have to trust that these presses will succeed in getting the publicity, shelf-space, and display table exposure to keep the business of publishing neglected books profitable. And so I will devote my time to the ones they miss.

The fact that a book has been out of print for at least ten years is a pretty reliable indicator that very few people are asking for it at their local bookshop or online store. While it’s easier to locate a used book today than it ever has been in the history of printed books, it still remains, as anyone who’s tried to run a used bookstore can tell you, that far, far, far fewer people make the effort to do it. Most books that are now out of print will never be reissued.

And most of them don’t deserve to be reissued. Set aside all the out-dated reference books, manuals for obsolete machinery and processes, superseded textbooks and other examples of the many types of short-term utilitarian content that gets published between covers, and there still remain thousands of uninspired, unimaginative, unoriginal, and otherwise uninteresting books that barely justified publication in the first place. They may be pot shards for some archaeologist, but they’re no more worth reading than pot shards are worth carrying water in.

But the law of large numbers suggests that the vagaries of publication, book review assignments, display table selection, and publisher’s publicity mechanisms will result in relatively stable number of good books not getting properly noticed and evaluated each year. And just getting good reviews or even good sales is not enough to keep a book from quickly fading away into obscurity. Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine got fine reviews and made it into the New York Times’ best seller list and yet disappeared utterly from any critical discussion for over thirty years–until Jane Smiley covered it in her Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. Even then, it’s taken another five years for a publisher (Harper Perennial) to reissue it.

So it’s a sure bet that there are books out there that didn’t get their lucky break. Books like The Moonflower Vine. Books like Winds of Morning that got good reviews and sold OK, if not great, and disappeared. Books like Michael Frayn’s Constructions that got good reviews, never had a chance of selling more than a few copies, and disappeared. And books like W. V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks that got one paragraph in one paper, sold a handful of copies, and barely appeared in the first place, let alone ever attracted notice again.

They deserve better. And so that’s the coalface I’ve chosen to work at. I guess I’m like the kid in Ronald Reagan’s favorite joke:

Worried that their son was too optimistic, the parents of a little boy took him to a psychiatrist. Trying to dampen the boy’s spirits, the psychiatrist showed him into a room piled high with nothing but horse manure. Yet instead of displaying distaste, the little boy clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to all fours, and began digging. “What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked. “With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere.”

With all those out of print books, there must be some ponies in there somewhere. My mission is to find a few.

3 Responses to “What Makes a Book “Neglected”?”

  1. Thomas Says:

    Well put. I hope you get some additional satisfaction from the pleasure you give to your readers. I am continually impressed with the site. It is one of my favorites on the web, in concept and in execution.

    This entry prompted me to think about why that is, and the best I could come up with is that your site occupies a niche between the “bookchat” that surrounds current literature and the often daunting discussion of experts (in journals, etc.) that surrounds classic literature. There is something comforting to the “common reader” about reading neglected books. No received opinions or fussy critics to get in the way. There’s something fresh about good, neglected books.

    Almost all of your entries grab my interest, and a number I have put on my to-read list, although I’m sorry to say I’ve actually sought out and read fewer than I might have wished (so far). Anyway, you aren’t writing into the void (which I’m sure you already know). This reader hopes that you will keep it up!

  2. editor Says:

    Well, Thomas, your comment provides enough fuel for my ego to run for a few months without going dry.

    I’d never considered things in that way, but your perspective about operating as a common reader without critics or popular opinions to get in the way is quite illuminating. I do take some pride and delight in finding the overlooked and bringing it back to light, especially if it’s clear that no one else has gone down that particular path for years or decades.

    Fortunately, I keep finding more such books that I can manage to read, so this vein of coal will keep me occupied for the foreseeable future.

    Thanks again for the words of encouragement.

  3. John Crippen Says:

    here’s a few truly neglected books, but the funniest on is a books about Atascadero State Hospital. The book is called the “Sweet Smell of ASH in the Morning. Not only is the book histerically bizarre, there’s also a few valid points regarding health care in the United States. If you wanna laugh your tailside off, pick up this book! Albeit inappropriate at times, you will not be able to put this book down.

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