An Audiobook Landmark

I want to veer off topic for a moment to take note of a remarkable accomplishment that seems to have gone largely without notice.

I’ve been a big fan of audiobooks ever since I discovered they’re a great way to make short work of a long drive. Nowadays, thanks to the convenience of MP3 players, I tend to have one going for workouts and commutes all the time.

When scrolling through Audible’s new releases about a month ago, I was astonished to see listings for William Gaddis’ The Recognitions and JR. I would never have expected to see these titles released as audiobooks. Together, the two books represent nearly 1700 pages of challenging prose. Neither was written with the slightest expectation of ever becoming widely read, and it took Gaddis nearly twenty years after publishing JR to finally gain acceptance as one of the finest American writers of the second half of the 20th century. The Recognitions is a thick book of dense prose telling a story made up of many layers of symbolism and artifice, but it still generally conforms to the structure of a straight-forward narrative.

JR, on the other hand, is one continuous tapestry woven of snatches of conversation linked by brief descriptions of landscapes and cityscapes, with almost nothing in the way of landmarks to help the reader find his way through the story. And most of the conversations take place in schools, offices, train stations, restaurants that make the stateroom in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera seem sedate. Here’s a small sample:

–What’s that?
–The American flag, said Mister Pecci joining them, glittering at the cuff.
–Oh, the film. It’s on film, a resource film on ahm, natural resources, Mister Hyde’s company was kind enough to provide …
–What America is all about, said Hyde, standing away from the set with a proprietary air. –What we have to …
–To use, or rather utilize …
–like the iceberg, rising to a glittering peak above the surface. For like the iceberg, we see only a small fraction of modern industry. Hidden from our eyes is the vast …
–Gibbs? Is that you? Come in, come in.
–No, don’t let me disturb you …

I tried reading JR a few years after it was first published and had to give up short of 100 pages because I just couldn’t make sense of what was happening in the midst of all that chatter. And even though it’s now earned a place in the modern canon by way of publication as a Penguin Modern Classic, it remains one of the most intimidating texts of the last 50 years.

So, from curiosity alone I decided to make it my month’s selection and give it a listen.

Nick SullivanWithin the first fifteen minutes, I knew that this recording of JR was a work of audiobook narration in a class of its own, a tour-de-force of interpretive skills that represents a real landmark in this medium. Nick Sullivan, the reader, manages to create distinct and convincing voices for the characters in the book’s first scene–the two elderly Bast sisters, one a bit dotty and the other a bit catty, the lawyer Cohen–and to make sense of a collage of dialogue among three people, none of whom is really listening to the others and none of whom manages to finish any of their statements. Then he goes on to tackle a cast of at least ten different characters riccocheting in and out of a principal’s office, including phone calls and in-house televised classes playing on monitors. By the time the book is over, Sullivan has to deal with over 100 (123, to be precise) different characters and easily as many scenes. He manages to be convincing as everyone from an eighty year-old spinster to a twelve year-old boy, as well as lawyers, bankers, brokers, teachers, politicians, low lifes, secretaries, salesmen, artists and ad men.

And not only does Sullivan juggle this huge cast and the many abrupt leaps from scene to scene and viewpoint to viewpoint, but he brings out the powerful moods and emotions to be found in JR–the comedy, satire, anger, pathos, and pessimism. JR is a pretty bleak view of the corrupting effect of capitalism, but Gaddis filters that view through a manic style of comedy that operates at times at the speed of an old Fred Allen routine. This is a very funny book, and, at points, a deeply sad and affecting one. What I recalled from reading it as a somewhat incoherent barrage of words proves, through Sullivan’s interpretation, to be a rich and affecting story.

This is the audiobook equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. There won’t be another one like this for a long, long time.

I was so impressed by his work that I sent Nick Sullivan a fan email, which he promptly and generously responded to, offering some of his own reflections on the recording of JR and The Recognitions, which he agreed to let me quote for this post:

When I agreed to audition for a couple William Gaddis novels I had never heard of him but the two selections I auditioned with were beautifully written. I “booked” the books… and had no idea of the journey I was about to embark upon. The two books together took me nearly three months to complete.

I have never spent so much time preparing a book. You simply couldn’t record JR without carefully unraveling every scene, determining who was speaking solely by context, verbal tics, and other clues.

I’ll admit that at first I was annoyed at Gaddis for being so willfully obscure … but once I began to record it … well, the man was a genius. A bit of a pessimistic cynic with a dark vision of humanity, perhaps … but a genius. I don’t want to give anything away but I was surprised to find myself choked up a bit in several places. And many was the time I busted out laughing at a particular turn of phrase (usually from Jack Gibbs)….

In some respects Gaddis WAS neglected … at least initially. The Recognitions is an astonishing work as well and received very little consideration until after JR. (so maybe he could be considered a “previously-neglected-author-who-got-his-recogntion”). I’d love to hear his name come up when people talk about “uber-works” from Proust or Joyce.

Out of the 300-plus books I’ve recorded, these two are in a class by themselves. And something fans of Gaddis should know: Gaddis’ writing translates exceptionally well into an audio format.

I have to qualify Nick’s last statement: Gaddis’ writing translates exceptionally well into an audio format when read by a virtuoso.

I realize that audiobooks are not always considered much as media go, but Nick Sullivan’s work on these two polymathic novels deserves a standing ovation from anyone who appreciates the aural and mental pleasure of hearing a piece of fine writing read well. Gaddis’ books are probably still too obscure to gain an Audie nomination for his performances, but I encourage any of my readers who are fans of audiobooks to check out JR or The Recognitions and enjoy two of the finest examples of narrative art ever recorded. Bravo, Mr. Sullivan!

New List Added to “Sources”: The New Republic, 1934

Malcolm Cowley, around 1940In early 1934, Malcolm Cowley, then literary editor of The New Republic magazine, sent out a series of letters to a number of America’s leading novelists and critics. “Each year,” he wrote,

… a few good books get lost in the shuffle. It may not be the fault of the publisher, the critic, the bookseller–it may not be anybody’s fault except that of the general system by which too many books are distributed with an enormous lot of ballyhoo to not enough readers. Most of the good books are favorably reviewed, yet the fact remains that many of them never reach the people who would like and profit by them, the people for whom they are written. Then, after a while, the publisher remainders them and they are forgotten.

Some week we should like to run a list of books like this, as a means of making amends to their authors–and perhaps also to the public that has so far missed the chance of reading them. Couldn’t you think of two or three or four and jot down their names, preferably with a few sentences identifying them?

About a dozen writers responded–and they include some of the biggest names of the era: Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, and Edmund Wilson. Cowley reprinted their lists and comments in two articles: “Good Books That Almost Nobody Has Read,” which appeared in the 18 April 1934 issue; and “More About Neglected Books,” which appeared on 23 May 1934. In addition, several readers responded to the first article with suggestions of their own, and their letters appeared in the 30 May 1934 issue. Although Cowley concluded the first article with an observation that, “American criticism ought to be given a chance, too, for sober second judgment of the books that deserve it,” the New Republic did not return to the subject until its brief series, “Lost and Found”, which is included among the Sources on this site.

Several titles came up on multiple lists–most notably Robert Cantwell’s Laugh and Lie Down, Catherine Brody’s novel of striking Detroit autoworkers, Nobody Starves, and Rudolf Brunngraber’s Karl and the Twentieth Century. Of these three, none has ever been reissued. The few available copies of Cantwell’s novel start at $150 and Brody’s at $55. Brunngraber’s novel, a fable of how Taylorism and mechanization ground down the common man, commands a mere $14.95 for a good copy without dust jacket.

Although a few titles, such as Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Kafka’s The Castle are now well-established classics, there are more titles that even I haven’t heard of than in perhaps any other of the Sources included on this site so far.

So dig in and enjoy this treasure trove of forgotten books.

See the full list at The New Republic, 1934

Libertarianism has its Benefits: Download Isabel Paterson’s “Never Ask the End” for Free

Libertarianism has never struck me as more than anarchism with a day job (which comment will probably bring a heap of abuse upon this site). But the good folks at the Ludwig von Mises Institute have brought at least one benefit to lovers of neglected books: the ability to download one of the best books I’ve ever written about, a novel so intelligent, adult, and female in its sensibility that it’s almost unfathomable that it’s not sitting on every bookstore’s shelves alongside the works of Jane Austen: Never Ask the End (the full URL: http://mises.org/books/never_ask_the_end_paterson.pdf).

When I featured the book about three years ago, I wrote:

The story in Never Ask the End is almost ridiculously simple: Marta Brown and Pauline Gardiner, two American women in their early forties, are visiting Paris. They have dinner with an old friend of Marta’s, Russ Girard, another American, who’s now an executive with a firm based in Antwerp. Russ invites the women to visit him in Antwerp. They spend a weekend together in the Ardennes. They agree to meet again in London, but Russ is delayed and arrives after Pauline has to board a liner back to the U.S. Marta and Russ enjoy London for a day or so, then return to Paris together, where Russ then heads off to Italy on business.

The extraordinary richness of Never Ask the End is certainly not to be found in the plot. It’s most definitely a book written in the wake of Ulysses, Virginia Woolf, and other early stream of consciousness novels.”[T]he mind is a deep pool, froth and ripples and straws on the surface and God knows what down below, water weeds and drowned things,” Marta thinks to herself at one point, and Paterson freely switches between physical events and the thoughts of her characters throughout the novel. Even for an experienced current-day reader, accustomed to narrative techniques of considerable complexity, Never Ask the End can be a challenge at first. I have to confess that I stopped after about seventy-five pages and started over again, reading more slowly and carefully the second time, in order to catch and keep track of the references to past experiences Paterson seeds in the flow of her characters’ thoughts.

Fortunately, there is much to reward the careful reader.

To tell the truth, I really didn’t do Never Ask the End justice in my original post. It inspired me to seek out and write about Paterson’s three other contemporary novels (she wrote several historical novels that are scarce as hen’s teeth and probably about as rewarding to locate): The Shadow Riders, The Golden Vanity, and If It Prove Fair Weather. All three are fine novels that deserve to be brought back in print, but Never Ask the End is a genuine masterpiece. (Actually, I consider If It Prove Fair Weather something of a masterpiece, too, but more on the order of a minimalist masterpiece along the lines of Henry Green’s Nothing, something one out of two readers probably wants to hurl out the window after the first twenty pages).

To the reader willing to take a while to tune into Paterson’s unique voice and style, Never Ask the End offers a wealth of pleasures: razor-sharp but deft observations of the manners of women and men, a running commentary on American and European life full of wit and historical insight, and literary references as dense as anything in Joyce but far more effortless.

So, until some publisher puts this book into formal print, let’s salute libertarianism for a moment and download our individualistic copies of Never Ask the End.

Jonathan Yardley’s Second Readings added to Sources

Source: Second Readings, from the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/linkset/2005/04/19/LI2005041903474.html

In early 2003, Jonathan Yardley, dean of the Washington Post’s book critics began what was modestly called, “An occasional series in which The Post’s book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.”
Jonathan Yardley
Ever month or so, Yardley would set aside his stack of review copies of new books to take up one that had been in or out of print for a decade or more–“books I remember with affection and admiration but have not read in many years, books I would like to encourage others to discover.”

His first piece dealt with John P. Marquand’s H.M. Pulham, Esq., also featured on this site about a year ago. His choice of Marquand, as Yardley put it, was motivated not because, “His are not the best books I’ve ever read, but they are among the books I love most, and the neglect into which they have fallen is a literary outrage.”

When he concluded the series almost seven years later, with a fond revisit to The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor, he wrote,

With that, this series of Second Readings comes to an end. It began in February 2003 and has covered nearly 100 books. Probably it could go on a while longer, but it’s best to quit before you start repeating yourself. Let me say by way of wrapping things up that except for a couple of the books I’ve written, nothing in my career has given me so much pleasure as these reconsiderations, not least because they have elicited such warm, generous responses from you, my treasured readers. I hope that I’ve steered you to a few good books you might otherwise have missed, and that those books gave you as much pleasure as reading and writing about them gave me.

Not all of the books Yardley covered can be considered neglected–certainly not such fixtures of the literary canon as Pride and Prejudice or The Catcher in the Rye. But he did often reach beyond the limits of the well-known and well-remembered to bring back to light titles such as Edwin O’Connor’s novel of a veteran vaudevillean,I Was Dancing (“I’d be hard-pressed to say that any book discussed therein is more undeservedly neglected than this one”), and The Second Happiest Day by John Phillips (pen name of Marquand’s son John Phillips Marquand, Jr.). He even took time to consider a book such as Philip Wylie’s rather dated critique of American society of the mid-20th century, Generation of Vipers to demonstrate that sometimes the test of time is a fair judgment of a book’s merit.

I’ve added the full list of books Yardley reviewed as a new Source list on the left.

Books to Watch “Mad Men” By, Part 2

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d really tapped the vein of Madison Avenue books in my first post on books to watch “Mad Men” by, so I returned to the coalface and started digging some more.

It turns out that by the time of “Mad Men”, the early 1960s, most of the literature of the New York advertising world–not that much of it deserves the “literature” label–had already been written. 1958, in fact, appears to have been the highpoint of Mad Lit, as this article from Time magazine suggests, which surveys a half-dozen novels published that year set in and around the advertising business. Although the reviewer dismisses most of them as easily interchangeable with camp science fiction with a simple switch of scenery–“the bug-eyed monsters will be replaced by tyrannical clients, the clean-cut spacemen by bright-eyed space-buyers, and the half-dressed blondes by other half-dressed blondes”–his description of their heroes sounds remarkably similar to that of the protagonists of “Mad Men.” “They are drumbeatniks who brood during a few drinks about the morality of what they are doing, then get over it.”

Here, then, are some more sagas of Scotch, sex, and sales campaigns for those who can’t get enough from a weekly session on the tube.

A Twist of Lemon, by Edward Stephens

“A young man’s desparate scramble up the cold and treacherous plate-glass cliffs of Madison Avenue,” according to its dust jacket. Here is a book that Barry Goldwater would love. What’s wrong with being a Mad Man is not the business, which in the end only “honestly and intelligently and faithfully advertises sound products to people who are glad to know about them. And that, after all, is what makes the economy go around.” What’s wrong is doing it in the plate-glass cliffs, which is why the hero heads to Phoenix to set up his own mom-and-pop ad company, in a steel-and-stucco cliff, one assumes.

Cover of 'Pax'

Pax, by Middleton Kiefer

Harry Middleton and Warren Kiefer, one-time PR men for Pfizer, stick it to the Man with this novel about false promises and misleading advertising in the pharmaceuticals business. It’s pure coincidence that SmithKline Beecham later adopted the name Paxil for their successful anti-depressant. It is a fact, however, as shown in the cover of the paperback version of Pax, that there was a brief period in 1958 when advertising executives enjoyed dressing up as airline pilots.

The Admen, by Shepherd Mead

Mead, who’s best remembered now because his 1952 book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, was the basis of a successful Broadway musical and a fun 1967 starring Robert Morse (resurrected forty years later to play Bert Cooper in “Mad Men”), was a Man Mad himself, VP of Benton & Bowles. Mead, who wrote a slew of mostly ephemeral satirical books (The Big Ball of Wax, The Carefully Considered Rape of the World, Free the Male Man!, How to Get to the Future Before It Gets to You), considered this his best book. Time’s reviewer had a different opinion, well and truly skewering it: “This time the author does not try for laughs, instead achieves a notable first: a novel whose characters will have to be deepened before they are translated to the screen.” The book did earn Mead one of the Establishment’s highest forms of recognition, though: it was issued as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.

The Detroiters, by Harold Livingston

Set in Detroit rather than Manhattan, but an ad-biz saga nonetheless. “Call-girls, debutantes and wives–the big novel about big operators, big deals, and beautiful women” trumpets the cover of this novel–and who would deny that fascination with a time when blatant sexism was not just tolerated but encouraged is part of the attraction of “Mad Men”? Livingston displays the schizophrenia of his fellow ad-man writers: “Good writers … look down their noses at advertising. They’d rather starve. So what does it get them? Self-respect? Integrity? Try paying your bills with integrity.” You thought that last line was a cliche, right? Nope, someone actually wrote it. I believe Livingston later attempted to copyright “Try paying your bills with integrity.”

Cover of A Really Sincere Guy

A Really Sincere Guy, by Robert van Riper

Yes, that really is the book’s title. Riper, who worked for the prominent PR firm, N. W. Ayer, wrote several novels about the intersection of PR and politics. In this one, his PR man hero sets aside his principles to tout a louse running for governor, fools around with a fast woman, then straightens his life out. Straightening his life out consists in returning to his wife, dumping the louse, and setting up his own mom-and-pop PR company. Probably a case where the cover is better than what comes after it.

The Insider, by James Kelly

Kelly, an exec with Compton Advertising, once wrote an article titled, “In Defense of Madison Avenue” for the New York Times magazine. The Insider earned the best reviews of all the books on this list–“told thoughtfully, and is worth reading,” wrote Time; “Not only a very good first novel but solid evidence that Mr. Kelly is a writer of perception and skill,” concluded Saturday Review. Perhaps, in part, because he chose an anti-hero–an amiable account exec married to a drug company heiress who suddenly has to make some real decisions for the first time in his life–rather than a “man of principles” like most of the other novels’. And in Kelly’s case, it was he, rather than his protagonist, who left Manhattan and headed off to the Southwest, settling in New Mexico.

The Golden Kazoo, by John G Schneider

When published in 1956, this satire about Madison Avenue finding a candidate and getting him elected as president (in the far-off year of 1960) as easily as it could pitch “a can of beer, a squeeze tube of deodorant, a can of dog food” seemed far-fetched enough to be considered as material for a Broadway musical. Now, of course, it’s business as usual.

Cover of 'The Advertising Man'

The Advertising Man, by Jack Dillon

This 1972 novel, by a VP of the legendary Dane Doyle Bernbach, was well-received by some critics. Time’s reviewer offered this left-handed compliment: “If this were a polished writing job, it would be one more of those slick commercial novels about an ad agency. Instead, it is clumsy, serious and painstaking, and perhaps as a consequence, considerably more enlightening.” It’s essentially a familiar story: work too hard and the rest of your life will eventually go on the fritz–but rich on authentic Man Med atmospherics.

Chocolate Days, Popsicle Weeks, by Edward Hannibal

Just recently reissued by the Authors Guild epublishing service, iUniverse, this 1970 is, in the words of a Times reviewer, “a rung-by-rung” account of climbing the Madison Avenue ladder in the late 1950s. It won Hannibal a Houghton-Mifflin Literary Fellowship and became a best-seller. The title comes not from advertising, but from its protagonist’s first job, working in an ice cream factory–days making chocolate-covered bars were tougher than those making popsicles. In keeping with its time and the formula for most of the novels discussed here, Hannibal’s ad exec eventually decides to drop out and pursue life away from the rat race–not, however, by setting up his own mom-and-pop ad firm.

Madison Avenue, USA, Martin Mayer

Probably the one to read if you really want to soak up the atmosphere of “Mad Men.” Written in 1958, Madison Avenue, USA is one of Mayer’s specialties: factual, intelligent, and authoritative accounts of how an industry really works.

BBC Radio 4’s Neglected Classics Contest

BBC Radio 4 logoBBC Radio 4’s program, Open Book, recently launched a contest to rediscover “forgotten treasures of the literary world – books that have been overlooked or become inexplicably out of vogue.” The winner will be dramatized on Radio 4 sometime during 2010. You can find out more at the website they’ve set up: “Neglected Classics”.

To get their audiences’ thoughts cranking, Open Book is devoting two programs to discussions with leading U. K. authors on some of their own candidates for this prize. The first, broadcast last Sunday (18 October), can be heard online now at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n6z0d. The second will be broadcast on Sunday the 25th. The ten books proposed on the two programs can be found now at the “Neglected Classics” page.

Several U. K. papers and magazines have noted the contest and invited their own readers to propose candidates in their comments threads. The Times covered it in their 17 October book section with an article by Adam Sherwin and commentary by Erica Wagner. Wagner proposes several favorites of her own, including P. V. Glob’s The Bog People, reissued in 2004 by New York Review Classics, and a collection of essays and lectures, The Voice That Thunders, by Alan Garner, whose The Stone Book Quartet has been mentioned on this site before. The Guardian’s Alison Flood also commented on the contest (“Remembering forgotten classics”) the day after the first broadcast. And the Reader Magazine’s “Reader Online” site picked up the idea, also asking for suggestions. I look forward to a rich crop of new titles to investigate and share with fans of this site.

Books to Watch “Mad Men” By

Like millions of other viewers, my wife and I have been enjoying frequent plunges back into the early 1960s as we blast through the first two seasons of A&E’s “Mad Men” on DVD. I was born in 1958 and have remarkably strong memories from that period: the cars, kitchens, and clothes, in particular.

Though I’d hardly recommend a return to the stereotypes and prejudices of that time, I do feel a certain nostalgia for the style and certainty of the time. So I thought I’d take a moment to note a few titles that readers might find interesting if they’re in the mood for taking a deeper plunge back into the days of “Mad Men.”

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Hucksters'

The Hucksters, by Frederic Wakeman (1946)

This best-seller from 1946 (OK, I’m stretching the boundaries of the era) was the first “expose” of the twisting and turning of the truth that was advertising back in the days before the FCC found its backbone. Its hero, Vic Norman, was an early anti-hero, refusing to kowtow to his boss while devising new ways to sell soap on the radio–a conforming non-conformist rather like “Mad Men”‘s Don Draper. Now out of print.

Aurora Dawn, by Herman Wouk (1947)

Subtitled, “The True History Of Andrew Reale,” this broadly satirical novel tells the story of an utterly unscrupulous young man who scampers to the top of the corporate ladder in an advertising firm leaving more than a few victims along the way. Wouk always emphasized that he’d actually written his book before Wakeman’s, even though it was published a year later. Still in print.

The Price is Right, by Jerome Weidman (1949)

Cover of early paperback edition of 'The Price is Right'Technically, this is a novel about getting ahead in the newspaper business, but it is set on Madison Avenue. Its hero, Henry Cade, decides that, “… you could no more want a little success than you could want a little love … To want less than everything was to get nothing.” “Mad Men”‘s Peter Campbell appears to share this philosophy.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson (1956)

Probably the best-known novel associated with the white collar WASP culture of the 1950s, the fictional counterpart to William Whyte’s classic, The Organization Man. Tom Rath, the hero, is in public relations rather than advertising, a distinguished war veteran, and faithful to his wife, Betsy. So maybe this isn’t the book to read while watching “Mad Men.”

The Naked Martini, by John Leonard (1963)

This first novel by a man who would come to be considered by some “the best critic in America” was panned by Harrison Salisbury in the New York Times: “… it possesses a certain wry wit, but 255 pages seems a long, long journey with no better company than a young adman, his bottles and his babes.” Sounds like a much more promising candidate in this case, however.

Cover of paperback edition of 'From Those Wonderful Folks'

From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, by Jerry Della Femina (1971)

Jerry Della Femina has been called one of the “100 most influential advertising people of the 20th century.” This tongue-in-cheek memoir of some of his wilder adventures during the Mad Men era is full of laugh-out-loud passages. Interviewed recently by USA Today, Della Femina said of the time, “It was a business of drinking. The way we lived really would make the characters in “Mad Men” all look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. We drank and screwed around.”

Confessions of an Advertising Man, by David Ogilvy (1985)

A more restrained but still occasionally outrageous memoir, this one by the most famous Mad Man of his time. A 1962 cover article in Time called Ogilvy a “literary wizard,” though some of his most memorable ads had more to do with visual impact (the Hathaway shirt man’s eye-patch) than his copy.

Barnes & Noble launches “Rediscovers” series devoted to out-of-print worthies

Source: “Barnes & Noble Launches Out-of-Print Imprint,” Publisher’s Weekly, 19 August 2009

Barnes & Noble, one of the U.S.’s largest booksellers, combining online and “brick and mortar” outlets, launched a new series devoted to the reissue of neglected books this month. As described on the B&N website:

Barnes & Noble Rediscovers brings back to print — in affordable hardcover editions — books of special merit in history, literature, philosophy, religion, the arts, and science. Many have been long unavailable or hard to find. Each is now reset in a modern design to welcome a new generation of readers.

The Rediscovers initiative is something of an extension to the Barnes & Noble Classics, which includes 200 well-recognized classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and David Copperfield in low-cost paperbacks with new introductions by contemporary writers and critics. However, unlike the Classics, the Rediscovers list is intended to be shaped directly by reader/buyer feedback: “The retailer will include customer feedback and online customer behavioral data as criteria for selecting books to publish through Rediscovers,” according to Retailer Daily.

The B&N Rediscovers series was launched with healthy kick, with 33 titles included in the first release. I am frankly impressed by how diverse and esoteric this list is. Here is a sample of what’s now available:

Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It, by Loren Eiseley

A study of Charles Darwin’s work and ideas within the intellectual context of Victorian England. More a scholarly than a lyrical work, written–as one Amazon reviewer put it–“while Eiseley was wearing his Professor hat instead of his Philosopher cap.”

Cover of Barnes and Noble Rediscovers reissue of 'The History in English Words'

The History in English Words, by Owen Barfield

One of the books I included on my “Editor’s Choices” list when I first started this site, this is certainly the most approachable of Barfield’s books–but it has the same capacity to shake up your world perspective. Essentially a survey of how the etymology of individual and groups of English words can reveal not just where they came from, but the dramatic differences in how the world was seen and understood in other times.

Maimonides, by Abraham Joshua Heschel

From the B&N site: “Originally published in German in 1935—the 800th anniversary of its subject’s birth—Maimonides was Abraham Joshua Heschel’s first important work. In it, the author combines an account of the life of this most influential of Talmudic scholars and most celebrated of medieval Jewish philosophers with a subtle introduction to his writings and their place in the broader tradition of Jewish thought.”

Physics for the Rest of Us: Ten Basic Ideas of 20th Century Physics, by Roger S. Jones

The youngster on this list, dating only from 1993. Jones’ objective was, “To combine a conceptual approach to modern physics with an exploration of its deeper meaning and philosophical significance.” Thus, this book is not only a clear, well-written explanation of ten concepts of physics developed in the 20th century, but a reflection on the benefits and limitations of science itself.

Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe, by George Santayana

Drawn from one of his Harvard courses, which could claim T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Conrad Aiken among its students, this book is the text of a series of lectures Santayana gave at Columbia University in 1910. At it’s also a pretty good demonstration of just how strong Barnes & Noble’s faith in the “if you reissue it, they will come” theory is. This is one of those titles that university presses usually trickle out in a few dozen copies a year over the course of a few decades–as it the even more intimidating Philosophical Sketches: A Study of the Human Mind in Relation to Feeling, Explored through Art, Language, and Symbol, by Suzanne Langer. Courage et bon chance, mes amis!

Alpha and Omega: Stories by Isaac Rosenfeld

Rosenfeld has been something of an insider’s legend for decades. After publishing a well-received coming-of-age novel, Passage from Home, in 1946, he wrote some fine stories and influential reviews, labored at some unpublished novels, and eventually faded into complete obscurity. Coming on top of the release earlier this year of Steven J. Zipperstein’s fine biography, Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing, Alpha and Omega should help revive interest in this classic neglected writer–although I suspect D. G. Myers got it right when he wrote in review of Zipperstein’s bio:

Rosenfeld’s name remains alive for two reasons. First, because he impressed, with his personality and literary promise, the reputation makers of his generation—Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Eliot Cohen (the founding editor of Commentary). He was embraced as the “golden boy” of the New York intellectuals, and then died far too early to fulfill their dreams for him. As Theodore Solotaroff recalled, some of his friends spoke the name Isaac as if it were “a magic word for joy and wit,” others as if “it were the most poignant word in the language.” Second, he was Saul Bellow’s best friend.

Bellow wrote the introduction to Alpha and Omega.

Cover of Barnes and Noble Rediscovers reissue of 'Really the Blues'

Really the Blues, by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe

Mezz Mezzrow was a clarinet-playing Jewish kid from Chicago who got into jazz back in the mid-1920s and played and hung out with most of the greats from that era–Armstrong, Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton. Unfortunately, his love of jazz was outmatched by his love of reefers. “Mezz” came to be slang for marijuana due to his own use, rather than vice-versa. As a musician, he was no great beans. But teamed up with the young and verbally-inventive Bernard Wolfe, he managed to put together a 400-page swim through more jazz lingo and life that you’ll find between any other two covers. Albert Goldman once wrote of the book and its subject, “Mezzrow was 1) the first white Negro, 2) the Johnny Apleseed of weed, 3) the author of a great American autobiography, Really the Blues, the finest eyewitness account of American counterculture ever published. The book is, likewise, the master-piece of the counterculture’s most characteristics literary medium: the slang-laced, jazz-enrhythmed, long-breathed and rhapsodic street rap and rave-up.” So pick up your shovel and dig it, man!

ABBA ABBA, by Anthony Burgess

One of Burgess’ shortest novels, ABBA ABBA–whose title refers to the sonnet rhyme pattern–is a lively hodgepodge of historical fiction, literary criticism, original translations (and transformations) of poems of Giovanni Belli, and an excuse for Burgess to blow fine verbal riffs on the theme of writing and translation.

On Moral Fiction, by John Gardner

Recently recommended by Maura Kelly on this site, On Moral Fiction was one of the more controversial books of 1978–and one of the best-selling works of literary criticism as a result. Gardner challenged modernism and the pursuit of literary invention for its own sake, advocating a return to the traditons of Dickens and Tolstoy.

Marcus Leaver, president of B&N’s publishing subsidiary, Sterling Publishing, suggests the initiative has much grander ambitions than the somewhat esoteric list of initial titles would indicate:

The Barnes & Noble Rediscovers series opens a new door for us and a new window for writers and estates who have earned no income on their works for years. We plan to expand the capabilities of the program to include both e-book and print on demand options.

This sounds as if Barnes & Nobles is taking a lesson from the Faber Finds venture, which has managed to push out over 400 titles in little over a year, thanks to diligent copywrite research and the magic of publish-on-demand. Both of which put the recently-announced AmazonEncore program (with a whopping one title, from 2006, to its credit).

Thanks to Robert Nedelkoff for passing this news along.

Ruminator Finds added to Sources

Ruminator Finds (originally known as Hungry Mind Finds), which was part of the catalog of Ruminator Books (originally known as Hungry Mind Books), the publishing arm of Ruminator Books, a legendary St. Paul, Minnesota bookstore (originally known as Hungry Mind Books), which also published the literary quarterly The Ruminator Review (originally known as–you got it–The Hungry Mind Review), has been added as a new Source (see under “Sources” to the left) with a list of the dozen or so titles issued during the first five years of Ruminator Books.

The Ruminator Books storeThe story of Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books is a parable of how far a passion for books can take you … until simple economics kick in. David Unowsky, who founded his independent bookstore, Hungry Mind Books, near the campus of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1970, and it acquired a reputation as one of a handful of truly great American bookstores. In the mid-1990s, he and his wife, Pearl Kilbride, along with other partners, started up an independent press, also known as Hungry Minds Books. Over the course of its nearly ten years’ existence, the press published 50 titles, with an emphasis on literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry, including a series of reissues of quality non-fiction under the rubrics of Hungry Mind Finds and Ruminator Finds.

In early 2000, they changed the company’s name to Ruminator Books after selling the name to Hungry Minds, publisher of the hugely successful [Fill in the Blank] For Dummies® series. Hungry Minds was later acquired by the technical publishing giant Wiley.

Unfortunately, that move was motivated mainly as an attempt to inject a positive cash flow into what was already a failing business. By mid-2004, the bookstore was forced to close its doors. The press was abandoned as an unsupportable venture, and the literary magazine Unowsky and Kilbride had also established became the last casualty in late 2005.

The Ruminator Finds list is an eclectic sample of some of the best non-fiction writing of the late 20th century and includes such well-recognized classics as Pat Jordan’s baseball memoir, A False Spring, and Bill Barich’s Laughing in the Hills, as well as a few fine but lesser-known works like Carl Raswan’s 1934 memoir, Black Tents of Arabia (My Life Among the Bedouins).

Black Squirrel Books added to Publishers Page

Thomas DePietro, who’s published several books of conversations with authors such as Don DeLillo and Kingsley Amis, wrote to mention another publisher of neglected books: Black Squirrel Books. A special imprint from Kent State University Press, Black Squirrel Books is devoted to “reprints of valuable studies of Ohio and its people, including historical writings, literary studies, biographies, and literature.” Which in and of itself wouldn’t rate a mention here were it not for the fact that the series includes two reissues from the once-legendary tough-guy writer, Jim Tully, who wrote trailer-trash fiction well before trailer parks were invented, and who gave Hemingway and other artistes the space experiment with brutality, violence, and bare-boned sexuality with gutsy novels like Laughter in Hell and Circus Parade.

DePietro provided the preface to a forthcoming reissue of the novelist Raymond Decapite’s 1961 book, A Lost King. The book was adapted for the screen as “Harry and Son” in 1984 by Paul Newman, who wrote, directed, and acted in the film. DeCapite’s most recent books are still available from Sparkle Street Press. DeCapite passed away just a few days ago at the age of 84, having lived in Cleveland, in which most of his stories are set, all his life.

“Why Do Some Writers Disappear?” from the Wall St. Journal

Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204556804574260451110396092.html

“Why do exceptional writers disappear?” a reader of Cynthia Crossen’s regular “Book Lover” column in the Wall Street Journal:

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'That Summer in Paris'Morley Callaghan is my favorite 20th-century novelist. His That Summer in Paris is among the best of memoirs. His writing is splendid, but he is forgotten. Every book lover can list authors who were wonderful and maybe even great (John Marquand, John Dos Passos, Erico Verissimo) but who are gone. Why do exceptional writers disappear?

Crossen admits that Callaghan’s name is unknown to her, but in her defense, notes that,

… even in the 1960s, Mr. Callaghan was “perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world,” wrote Edmund Wilson, who hypothesized that Mr. Callaghan might have been the victim of geographical snobbery. Critics seemed to doubt that even a literary genius comparable to Chekhov or Turgenev “could possibly be functioning in Toronto.”

She concludes with a mention of this site: “A very fine Web site, neglectedbooks.com, has many links to lists of lost classics as well as its own ruminations on the subject.” But then she also points out that, “… a site search showed not a trace of Morley Callaghan.”

Well now it does, courtesy of Ms. Crossen.

Just added to Sources: 100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read, by Karl Bridges

100 Great American Novels You've Probably Never ReadPublished in 2007, 100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read is an attempt by Karl Bridges, librarian and associate professor at the University of Vermont’s Bailey/Howe Library, to provide a resource for readers of American fiction who’ve read their way through the standard canon of classics. “One goal of this book,” Bridges writes in his Introduction, “is to represent a wide time span–one equaling the length of American history”, and the novels listed cover a full 200 years: from Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walkerstyle=border:none (1797) to Charles T. Power’s In the Memory of the Foreststyle=border:none (1997).

For each listing, Bridges provides:

  • A paragraph or so extract from the work to give a sense of the writer’s style;
  • A synopsis of the story;
  • Bridges’ own critical commentary, informed by what he estimates as over 50,000 hours of reading;
  • A biographical sketch of the author;
  • A selected list of his/her other works;
  • References and other suggested sources about the author and the novel

In some cases, the information Bridges assembles represents more than anyone has ever collected on the author and novel. His choices also reveal a broad and eclectic taste, one that includes not only mainstream fiction but genres such as science fiction, serials, detective tales, and novels for young adults.

You can find the complete list of 100 titles under Sources to the left of this page: Karl Bridges.

What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960, by Gordon Hutner

Cover of 'What America Read'“Why are so few novels remembered while so many thousands forgotten?” This is the question Gordon Hutner, professor of English at the University of Illinois, takes up in his new book, What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960, due out this month from the University of North Carolina Press. In it, Hutner surveys four decades of American fiction from the viewpoint of the reading public and the mainstream critics of the time, and reveals just how shifts in the currents of critical tastes can leave many good works stranded and quickly forgotten.

“There is no critical conspiracy to keep these books from being read,” Hutner writes. Instead, he shows how mainstream critics such as Bernard deVoto, Clifton Fadiman, and Henry Canby were eclipsed by a younger, more politically-oriented generation with the likes of Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, and Dwight MacDonald, who favored modernism over realism and the marginalized over the mainstream. With their rise, writers such as John Marquand, who had enjoyed both popular and critical success, came to be considered hacks and reactionaries.

Hutner does not claim that there are dozens of lost masterpieces to be found among the books he surveys. He merely argues that their neglected ultimately represents our own “impoverishment, since their fiction reveals the epic story of a nation’s self-invention as a modern society through the filter of middle-class experience.” Although he doesn’t single out any title for special attention, opting instead for a comprehensive survey, Hutner did mention a few noteworthies in a recent interview:

Really there are just too many! I gained a great appreciation for many women writers I had never heard of before, like Margaret Barnes, who won a Pulitzer for a novel about the rise of Chicago [Years of Grace, winner of the 1931 award–Ed.]. I also liked Josephine Lawrence, who wrote in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s! Her novels were smaller affairs, written to be read in an evening, dealing with problems like how to manage a budget or how to deal with the aged in a world before the Social Security Act. (Reviewers sometimes asked why she wasn’t more highly esteemed.) Margaret Culkin Banning wrote similar novels about women a rung or two higher on the social ladder. Caroline Slade wrote some interesting books about women in the Depression and the sex trade. Maritta Wolff wrote terrific novels in the 40s, including the very best one about women’s experience with returning GIs called About Lyddy Thomas; a posthumous novel of hers came out a few years ago [Scribner’s has reissued three of Wolff’s novels–Whistle Stop, Night Shift, and the posthumous Sudden Rain–Ed.]. I also liked Margaret Halsey’s comic writing: With Malice Toward Some is a delight. She wrote a novel and a nonfiction book about black GIs and race relations, drawn on her USO stint, but the nonfiction book is more trenchant.

There were good books by plenty of men too, and I would be remiss if I did not mention Michael Foster’s American Dream. With such a title, the book better be good, and it is. I really developed a taste for John Marquand too, especially Point of No Return. I also “discovered” wonderful novels by African American writers—Waters E. Turpin’s migration novels of the 30s [These Low Grounds (1937) and O Canaan! (1940)–Ed.] may be known to specialists but scarcely make their way onto many syllabi in twentieth-century African American fiction.

I plan to add Hutner’s book and a list of many of the titles he discusses, to the Sources section on this site later this month, but the above sample provides an excellent start. I highly recommend What America Read to any fan of 20th century realistic fiction.

Excellent new article on Jetta Carleton and The Moonflower Vine

Harper Perennial’s reissue of Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine has garnered coverage in a number of newspapers, but by far the best to date–in fact, the most substantial piece on Jetta Carleton’s life and work yet published–appears this week in the St. Louis Riverfront Times: “Moonflower Resurrection.” Staff writer Aimee Levitt penned a long and sensitive article that gives considerable due to both the novel and Carleton’s life and work before and after its publication. I recommend it highly to any fan of this site.

Robert Phelps featured in The American Scholar

The American Scholar‘s Spring 2009 issue includes two features on Robert Phelps, who co-founded the Grove Press, edited numerous collections of the writings of Colette, Glenway Wescott, Ned Rorem, and others, was called “the best book reviewer in America” by Garry Wills, and struggled for 30 years to produce a second novel to follow his well-received 1958 debut, Heroes and Orators. The first, “Dawn of a Literary Friendship”, features the first dozen of over 200 letters exchanged between Phelps and the novelist James Salter between 1969 and Phelps’ death in 1989, an irresistable taste from what will be a future collection of their correspondence edited by John McIntyre.

Writing to Salter on Christmas Eve, 1969, Phelps gushes with admiration for Salter’s 1967 novel, A Sport and a Pastime (“my own favorite American novel of the ’60s”), his script for “Downhill Racer”, and his direction of the film, “Three”. Salter replied with praise for Phelps’ compilation of Colette’s autobiographical writings, Earthly Paradise: “I’ve given many copies away. Everything about it is beautiful. I love to pick it up.”

Salter was just hitting his stride as a writer. As Phelps struggled to create something original of his own, Salter slowly but steadily built up an oeuvre and a critical reputation as a writer who, in the words of Richard Ford, “writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” Composer and diarist Ned Rorem has described Phelps’ letters as “witty, lewd, sage, generous, gossipy, aggressively self-effacing, montrously opinionated without bitchery, engrossed by the literary life in general while being always directed to a unique recipient, and generally weaving something extraordinary out of something ordinary.” As this first sample shows, the combination of Phelps’ and Salter’s talents and genuine mutual affective and admiration promises to represent one of the most interesting and enjoyable collections of American letters of the 20th century.

The second piece, “I wanted to Be Robert Phelps”, by Washington Post critic Michael Dirda, shows Phelps both as a man of tremendous erudition and enthusiasm for writers and artists of past and present. Phelps’ study and office in his Manhattan apartment was, in Dirda’s eyes,

… the perfect room. The wooden floors had been stained black, the walls completely lined with bookshelves. Curtains were always kept drawn, blocking out the day and night. A pole lamp stood next to a rather high-tech chrome and leather easy chair, while extension lights were clamped to the corners of bookcases. On a coffee table in the middle of the room there always lay page proofs, literary magazines, publishers’ catalogues. Instead of a sofa, a daybed butted up against the back of a freestanding bookcase and was covered with pillows embroidered with scenes from classical mythology (Becki’s handiwork). Near the music corner—lots of Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Ravel LPs—stood a long low set of white shelves on top of which rested more books, some heavy tumblers and a big bottle of Tanqueray gin.

Beneath the cultured lifestyle Dirda admired, however, Phelps struggled to with his own demons. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease for years, was prone to drinking at times, and agonized over his sexuality, which was one aspect of Heroes and Orators praised by critics such as Leslie Fiedler. And he constantly took himself to task for failing to produce “worthy books”. As he once wrote Salter,

As it is, for 20 years, I have only scrounged at making a living: a low standard of survival and hundreds of articles, reviews, flower arrangements of other people’s prose, etc. Not a good form of hell at all. This has become terribly clear to me in the past 6 weeks when I have been going through sheaves of old printed matter with a view to making our publisher a book called Following. I have been appalled by the waste, the thousands and thousands of irretrievable words on which nevertheless I worked long and hard and sometimes until 5 a.m. No. Somewhere I took a wrong turning. I should not have tried to earn my living with my typewriter. I should have become a surveyor, or an airline ticket salesman, or a cat burglar. As it is, I am far far beyond the point of no return and such powers as I once counted on—the ability to write to order and out of my own battiness, so to speak—are suddenly gone.

Instead of writing more novels, Phelps collected, annotated and edited. Colette’s writings. James Agee’s letters. Glenway Westcott’s miscellania. Ned Rorem’s first diaries. And The Literary Life; a Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene From 1900 to 1950, which one reviewer called “a loving elegy, a larky swansong, a doting, dotty, but undaunted Souvenir Album for books, books, books, and for all the men and women who ever believed in making them.” And Dirda says of it, “I’ve since carried the book with me my whole life; it has been on my bedside table wherever I have lived. I have read it over and over.”

He also taught writing, mostly at the New School, and inspired dozens of his students. Dan Wakefield portrays Phelps as his primary influence in his memoir, New York in the Fifties, as does Derek Alger on the online magazine, Pif.

Perhaps Phelps just didn’t recognize–or value, at least–the talent he seems to have genuinely had, even though he admitted it in one of his early letters to Salter:

Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets…how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.

Certainly the warm spot Phelps’ pastiches of Colette and others continues to hold in the hearts of their readers suggests that his energies may have been better spent in creating them than in writing novels that might well have been forgotten as quickly as Heroes and Orators was.

1500 Books added to Publishers List

Thanks to a visitor’s Amazon purchase, I discovered an admirable venture into republishing neglected classics: 1500 Books. Founded by two veterans of the publishing business, Eileen Bertelli and Gavin Caruthers, 1500 Books’ list is devoted to the art of the memoir: “We believe memoirs—when it’s a good story, well told—can be some of the most compelling reading you will ever experience.” Their star release so far is the reissue of Lucy Norton’s three-volume 1967 English translation of one of the juiciest memoirs ever written, that of King Louis XIV’s advisor, the Duc de Saint Simon: 1691-1709: Presented to the King; 1710-1715: The Bastards Triumphant; and 1715-1723: Fatal Weakness. As sober a source as the Catholic Encyclopedia remarked of these memoirs, which were last available from the late Prion Lost Treasures in the UK, “Whatever the historical value of the ‘Memoirs’ may be, they are, by their sparkling wit, one of the most original monuments of French literature.”

 

Neglected Books gets a mention in Publishers Weekly

Source: “Web Site and Author Rescue a Forgotten Book,” by Lynn Andriani, Publishers Weekly, 2/2/2009 (http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6633740.html)

In anticipation of Harper Perennial’s forthcoming reissue of Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine, Publishers Weekly recently included a story about how the book can to be republished. It turns out that the Neglected Books Page had something to do with it:

The Moonflower revival began when a small press contacted Carleton’s grandniece, Susan Beasley, telling her it wanted to reissue Moonflower, which is set on a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the 20th century. Beasley got in touch with agent Denise Shannon, who didn’t know the book but Googled it and wound up on NeglectedBooks.com, a site launched in 2006 that features thousands of books that have been, according to the site, “neglected, overlooked, forgotten, or stranded by changing tides in critical or popular taste.”

The Moonflower Vine is due out from Harper Perennial on 24 March 2009.

What Makes a Book “Neglected”?

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.

“The Gospel at Colonus” now available on DVD

The Gospel at Colonus DVDI’m going to shift my spotlight away from neglected books for the first time to draw attention to the long, long-overdue release on DVD of the 1985 PBS “Great Performances” production of the Lee Breuer/Bob Telson landmark show, “The Gospel at Colonus”. Recently, I was talking to an acquaintance about memorable theater experiences. He and his wife had seen “The War Horse” at the National Theatre in London, and he said the first sight of the horse puppet, designed by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, sent a shiver up his spine.

I told him I had the same reaction to the opening moments of the theatre production of “The Lion King,” when the dancers, in Julie Taymor’s incredible costumes, begin to come onto the stage from the wings and through the aisles. “I think there have only been three or four times I’ve had that reaction something in theater,” I said, but my mind instantly went blank when I tried to think of the others. And then it hit me: “The Gospel at Colonus”, of course.

It was in 1990, when my wife and I went to see Breuer’s revival of his 1985 production for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. About 10 minutes into the show, Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama enter from the left wing, dressed in shining silver tuxes. They are the collective, choral Oedipus. “Daughter, lead me on,” Fountain calls out, and Jevetta Steele, playing Ismene, begins to lead them in a classic sufferin’ gospel show trudge, toward center stage. From the right wing goes out a shout: “Stop!” The Soul Stirrers, as the defenders of Colonus, all dressed in deep burgundy suits, with Sam Butler, Jr. on guitar in the lead, begin moving out to stop them. “Stop, do not go on,” they sing. “This place is holy. You cannot walk this ground.” A vocal battle of sorts then erupts, as the Oedipi come on and the Soul Stirrers push back. With each step, the tension mounts. Behind, a large gospel choir sways back in forth to the rhythm of the march. Butler and Fountain come face to face, duking it out: “Can’t do it!” “I’ll do it!” “Can’t do it!” “I’ll do it!” Finally, in frustration, Fountain lets out with a wild, falsetto howl that slices right through to the heart. I had tears in my eyes, it was so thrilling.

I had first heard about “The Gospel at Colonus” in the Village Voice back in 1983, when it opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the academy’s Next Wave Festival. I was intrigued at the whole concept of the show: an interpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy, “Oedipus at Colonus” in the music of modern American black gospel. I was already a big fan of black gospel music. But the fact that Breuer had been able to enlist the participation of not just the Five Blind Boys but the Soul Stirrers left me dearly wishing I was living on the right, not the left coast.

Fortunately, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan fame was also a fan of the show and arranged to release an original cast recording on Warner Brothers Records in 1984, and I swooped my copy up the moment it hit the racks. I copied it to cassette (remember them?) and played it over and over in the car. Some critics have written that “Stop! Do Not Go On” is the only memorable song from the show, but having listened to the album at least a hundred times over the last 20+ years, I think this is unfair and seriously wrong.

Virtually even number is good enough to take its place alongside the best gospel tunes of the last fifty years. “How Shall I See You Through My Tears?”, Ismene’s plaintive cry for her long-lost father is matched Oedipus’ desparate wish that the Lord would “Life Me Up (Like a Dove)”, so that “I could look with the eyes of the angels/For the child that I love.” The joyous resolution of the choir’s answer to Oedipus’ plea to find a resting place: “Live where you can/Be happy where you can.” The stunning oratio of “Numberless Are the World’s Wonders”, in which the singer lists all the powers of man, spiralling up to a series of “From every wind/He has made himself secure”, only to end with the chorus reminding us, “From all but one/In the late wind of death he cannot stand.” And the stomping, rousing celebration of the peace Oedipus finally finds: “Lift Him Up.” These songs are among the most moving I know.

Although “The Gospel at Colonus” only ran for about two months when Breuer took it to Broadway in 1985, he’s managed to stage a number of revivals at fairly regular intervals, so that by now, the show has been performed over 1,000 times. A second recording of the songs from the show, with mostly the same cast members as the first, was released in 1985 and is now available on CD (although I personally prefer the Warner Brothers version).

PBS recorded a performance in Houston in 1985, when Morgan Freeman was still playing the speaking Oedipus, and showed it on their “Great Performances” series. This was briefly available on VHS tape, but it’s effectively been out of reach until a month or so ago, when NewVideo finally issued it on DVD. Given the show’s record, this release may disappear just as quickly as all the past revivals and recordings, so I urge everyone to buy or rent a copy and see while it’s still available. The video quality is not the best, being just a digitized version of the first release without any apparent touch-up. But the power of the music, the performances, and the visual impact of the staging easily overcomes this shortcoming. Until you have that once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it live, don’t stop and do go on to see it now and DVD. Your life will be richer for it.

“The Gospel at Colonus”

Book by Lee Breuer
Based on “Oedipus at Colonus,” “Oedipus Rex,” and “Antigone” by Sophocles; Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus” and “Antigone” adapted by Robert Fitzgerald; Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” and “Antigone” adapted by Dudley Fitts
Music by Bob Telson
Available from New Video (ISBN: 1-4229-1948-X)