1482068 Curiosities served
2010-01-06 9:04 PM
Sent Under Plain Brown Wrapper
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A new issue of The Orphan Scrivener (well sort of new) is up at the website. In addition to some news items, Mary attempts to solve the mystery of a play J.M. Barrie never finished. My contribution is this musing on where books come from:
Today the whole universe of books stretches before us in plain sight on the Internet. Wonder what an author wrote, and where the works can be found? Bookseller, publisher and author sites, Wikipedia, and blogs will tell us anything we want to know. (Mary and I favor Fantastic Fiction for author bibliographies). What’s more, tens of thousands of old and often obscure titles are available for free in electronic form at sites like Gutenberg and Google Books.
It's a good thing, for the most part. But I sometimes miss the days when books were treasures to be sought after. I still remember my amazement during the early eighties when I found, on the used book table in a second hand shop outside Rochester, NY, the original paperback of Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein’s A Cellar Full of Noise, his first-hand account of the band’s Cavern Club days. The book may have been in print at the time but if so I didn’t know about it.
Back in the sixties and seventies when I read voraciously, it wasn’t easy to find out that books existed, let alone find them to read. During one of my day-trips to New York City I learned about the publisher Dover Books and subsequently ordered from their catalog many of the public domain titles presented so beautifully in stiff covered trade paperback editions. I enjoyed Ernest Bramah’s tales of blind detective Max Carrados, Jacques Futrelle’s The Thinking Machine stories, The Old Man in the Corner by Baroness Orczy, and the Doctor Thorndyke detective stories of R. Austin Freeman. These books were entirely new to me. They had long since vanished from print for the most part and even from the shelves of the local library. Although Dover made a few such books available, I had no idea how many more the authors had written. Today most of what such authors wrote can be found on the Internet.(One exception is the work of popular thirties mystery writer C. Daly King whose Obelists Fly High greatly impressed me, even while I was mystified by the title.)
Years ago huge well-stocked bookstores and specialty bookstores tended to be confined to large cities. I took the bus to New York not so much to buy books I couldn’t find locally but to browse the shelves to see what delights I was missing. Manhattan stores carried New Directions trade paperback translations of Jorge Louis Borges, Louis Ferdinand Celine, Jean Cocteau, Arthur Rimbaud, and other enticingly unfamiliar foreign authors. There was almost always something different and exciting behind those distinctive black and white covers. At the time, trade paperbacks were much rarer than they are now and usually reserved for work considered, a bit too off-beat for commercial success. Exactly what I usually prefer.
Only in New York was I able to find novels by the French author Allain Robbe-Grillet, to whom I had been introduced during a college class. Although considered a literary -- or perhaps more accurately anti literary establishment-- writer, Robbe-Grillet penned a delightfully peculiar and complex detective novel (of sorts) entitled, in English, The Erasers. I have always preferred to think of the French title Les Gommes, since it evokes, for me (if incorrectly) the term gumshoe.
College was an excellent, if expensive, way to discover new books. The works of many of the authors I encountered in literature classes were available in Penguin Classic editions, but only the New York City stores had large sections of those. When I moved to Rochester, New York, I was astounded to discover that a large downtown “news vendor” also stocked books and, in particular, boasted a huge selection of Penguins. Right next to a huge comic book section. What a choice. Middlemarch or Iron Man? Okay, I blush to admit, I have yet to read Middlemarch.
One of the joys of exploring a big bookstore was that there would be far more titles by individual authors than in my local haunts. I was thrilled to find an endless supply of Michael Moorcock beyond the few Elric books with which I was familiar. What’s this? The Ice Schooner. The Fireclown. Another installment of the Elric saga I never knew existed!
Of course British authors do not necessarily see all their titles in print in the United States and even the biggest bookstores didn’t always stock all the UK titles. So I ordered science fiction from an overseas bookseller. The British paperbacks I found when I eagerly tore the brown paper from the parcels were of a slightly different dimension than American ones, their covers much glossier, the artwork typically, to my taste, better. They seemed like books from some parallel universe.
It was also possible to buy directly from the big publishers. In the back of a paperback there would be a tempting list of titles and an invitation to send in an order. I remember when I was in high school sending away for a big stack of John Steinbeck novels. It was also possible, when making an extensive order, to happen to check off something such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the purchase of which might be problematical at the local bookshop. Maybe I should have done that.
No doubt I could have saved myself all this questing for books if I had been content to stick to the bestsellers which were as omnipresent then as they are today. However, while I do not, like some, object to bestsellers on principle (Stephen King is perhaps my favorite author) I’ve always felt that except for rare works of genius which become classics, books manage to speak to more readers by saying less to them individually. The books which most appeal to me are those which are -- or perhaps have become through the passage of time -- a bit too eccentric to find mass popularity. Jealousy, my favorite novel by Robbe-Grillet reportedly sold 746 copies in its first year after publication.
Is it surprising that Mary and I write the sort of books we do?
We’re grateful that Poisoned Pen Press has seen fit to publish our Byzantine mysteries -- books that would probably never attract sufficient readers to interest a publishing conglomerate. And we are even more grateful for our readers, who give us an excuse to keep writing. Books are easier to locate today than they used to be, but I know that you can’t always be assured of finding the adventures of John the Lord Chamberlain at the local library or of running across one of our mysteries in a bookstore. If you have read our books you have almost certainly gone to the trouble to seek them out and taken pains to order them specially, a high compliment. I hope you find a little of what I have found in the books I’ve sought out, that they are just enough different to be worth the effort.
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