A Book Designed to Last

The Statement at the Lower Left Used To Be on All Dover Paperbacks

As long as I can remember, I have been a big fan of Dover paperbacks. I was reminded of this as I started reading Howard Carter and A. C. Mace’s The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen (1923). There, at the bottom of the back cover, stood this bold claim:

A DOVER EDITION DESIGNED FOR YEARS OF USE:

We have made every effort to make this the best book possible. Our paper is opaque, with minimal show-through; it will not discolor or become brittle with age. Pages are sewn in signatures, in the method traditionally used for the best books, and will not drop out, as often happens with paperbacks held together with glue. Books open flat for easy reference. The binding will not crack or split. This is a permanent book.

Alas, this claim does not appear on more recent Dover paperbacks. In my collection, I have at least several hundred Dover books on chess, Shakespeare, ghost stories (a Dover specialty), mysteries, G. K. Chesterton, Anthony Trollope, John Lloyd Stephens, and numerous classics in the public domain. Not only were Dover books well made, they used to be relatively inexpensive. No more. I still follow them at their website and still occasionally order from them.

 

 

A Signpost to Little-Known Great Books

A Wonderful Book by a Dartmouth English Professor

Although I was an English major at Dartmouth College, I never had a class taught by Professor Noel Perrin (1927-2004). Nevertheless, he has had an outsize influence on my reading with his book A Reader’s Delight, consisting of collected essays on interesting byways in literature which he originally wrote for the Washington Post. I always like to acknowledge my sources. For instance, there were the essays of Jorge Luis Borges, which, since around 1970, have been my principal guide to the world’s literature.

Second, however, has been Noel Perrin’s A Reader’s Delight. Following is an alphabetical list by author of the books that Professor Perrin has pointed me toward:

  • Peter S. Beagle, A Fine and Private Place
  • Ernest Bramah, Kai-Lung’s Golden Hours *
  • Bryher, Roman Wall *
  • Lord Dunsany, The Blessings of Pan *
  • William Dean Howells, Indian Summer *
  • Rose Macaulay, A Casual Commentary *
  • Joseph Mitchell, The Bottom of the Harbor *
  • Marcel Pagnol, My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s House
  • Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins *
  • Stendhal, On Love *
  • Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Far Rainbow *

What do the asterisks signify? Only that since reading the recommended book, I have read other works by the recommended author. That’s quite a record.

 

TBR

Chinese Author Cao Xueqin (1715-1763)

TBR is a real bookworm’s term: It’s an acronym for To Be Read. We all have our TBR piles. Here is a look at mine, consisting mostly of Asian classics (some of which are multi-volume) and various Medieval and Ancient Greek and Roman classics. Here are some 22 classics which I will attempt, in my own desultory fashion, to read while I am able:

  • Anonymous, The Mahabharata (India)
  • Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (Italy)
  • Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers (Austria)
  • Cao Xueqin, The Dream of the Red Chamber (aka The Story of the Stone) (China)
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (England)
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Raw Youth (aka The Adolescent) (Russia)
  • Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man (USA)
  • William Faulkner, A Fable (USA)
  • Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum (Germany)
  • João Guimarães Rosa, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (Brazil)
  • Henry James, The Bostonians (USA)
  • Kalidasa, The Shakuntala (India)
  • Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain (Japan)
  • Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (Ancient Rome)
  • Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Complete Essays (France)
  • Shikibu Murasaki, The Tale of Genji (Japan)
  • Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities (Germany)
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses (Ancient Rome)
  • Plato, The Republic (Ancient Greece)
  • Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (Russia)
  • Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (India)
  • Valmiki, Ramayana (India)

Some of the above works are major; others are relatively minor. The Faulkner and Dostoyevsky, for instance, are there only because they are the only novels by the two authors I have not read. I have already picked up a copy of Henry James’s The Bostonians to read next month.

 

Better Than Ever

Monaco Stamp Commemorating Honoré de Balzac

It has been over six years since I opened a book by one of my favorite authors, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). Sometimes when I revisit a favorite author after a long absence, I find that my ardor has cooled somewhat. Not so with Balzac!

In the Yahoo French Literature Reading Group, I recommended that we select A Harlot High and Low, a.k.a. Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838-1847) for our July read. It didn’t take too many pages before I was as entranced as ever. It was almost half a century ago that I first undertook to read Père Goriot (1835), still my favorite among his works. Interestingly, two of the characters from the earlier book—Eugène de Rastignac and Vautrin—appear in the work I am re-reading.

The period of the author’s life somehow tied together the French Revolution (1789-1799), the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Bourbon Restoration, the reign of Louis-Philippe “The Citizen King,” and the Revolutions of 1848. No other writer on the Continent was able to bridge these critical periods as Balzac did with his Comédie Humaine series of stories and novels, although Charles Dickens at times came close.

Balzac was the first writer to share characters between stories. As one reads his works, one gains a deeper understanding not only of the characters, but the times and milieus in which they lived.

The Work I’m Re-Reading Now

As I re-read A Harlot High and Low, I see myself returning to my favorites among his works:

  • The Wild Ass’s Skin (Le Peau de Chagrin), 1831
  • Eugénie Grandet, 1833
  • Old Goriot (Le Père Goriot), 1835—probably the best place to start if you want to read Balzac
  • César Birotteau, 1837
  • Lost Illusions (Illusions Perdues),  1837-1842
  • Cousin Bette (La Cousine Bette), 1846
  • Cousin Pons (Le Cousin Pons), 1847
  • A Harlot High and Low (Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes), 1838-1847

Over the years, I have actually read all 50-odd novels and all 20-odd short stories that have been translated into English, some more than once. And it appears that I’m not finished yet.

 

 

Hard-Boiled

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’s Masterpiece The Big Sleep (1946)

I’ve written before about American film noir, which includes many of my favorite films, such as The Big Sleep, High Sierra (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Big Heat (1953)—not to mention several hundred other likely prospects.

Today I would like to say a few words about the literary genre that spawned these films. Although it was not until 1945 that the French publishing house Gallimard introduced its Serie Noir editions that gave birth the the genre’s name, noir novels had been written for years. There was even an early noir film by D. W. Griffith entitled The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1913).

What is it about the United States that produced this genre of hard-boiled urban crime fiction? It probably has something to do with our fascination with hard-boiled dicks, cigarettes, hard-luck losers, cheap booze, hot floozies, and guns. Here are just a few mileposts in the genre, alphabetically ordered:

  • W. R. Burnett: High Sierra (1941)
  • James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
  • Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye (1953), probably my favorite of all the noir writers.
  • James Ellroy: L.A. Confidential (1990)
  • Kenneth Fearing: The Big Clock (1946)
  • David Goodis: The Moon in the Gutter (1953), which I’m reading now.
  • William Lindsay Gresham: Nightmare Alley (1946)
  • Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon (1930)
  • Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train (1950)
  • Chester Himes: The Real Cool Killers (1959)
  • Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place (1947)
  • Jim Thompson: The Killer Inside Me (1952)
  • Cornell Woolrich: Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945)

I think I’ll stop at thirteen writers—a most appropriate number for this list. Not coincidentally, all have been made into classic films, both in the U.S. and France. Without straining my mind too much, I could probably double the size of the list. What’s interesting is that this list includes women (Highsmith and Hughes) and one African-American (Himes).

While none of the above names fit in with Beckett, Joyce, Faulkner, and the other literary heavyweights of the last hundred years, I would not be surprised if their works could be found on their night-stands.

My Best of 2017

German Author W. G. Sebald (1944-2001)

Below is a list of my favorite books from 2017. Most are fiction, with some occupying the in-between zone, and only two are outright non-fiction. The only name which is repeated from 2016 is that of Patrick Modiano, about whom I posted yesterday. The 14 books listed below are in alphabetic order by the names of their authors. This year, I have also included the country of origin.

  • Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (US). I was tempted to also include The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols, but of the two New Mexico novels, I think Anaya’s is the better.
  • Teju Cole, Open City (US). Cole’s Nigerian-American viewpoint is incredible. I am keeping my eye on this writer.
  • Ry Cooder, Los Angeles Stories (US). Granted, Cooder is a great musician; but he’s also got the makings of a great writer. I would love to see more from him.
  • Antonio di Benedetto, Zama (Argentina). This New York Review title introduces a writer unknown to Americans, but well known to South Americans. A Spanish government official in Paraguay finds his ambition is constantly being thwarted.
  • Joan Didion, South and West, From a Notebook (US). This is an old title that is just now being released. Didion’s 40-year-old observations of Dixie are still relevant.
  • David Goodis, Dark Passage (US). A noir masterpiece, far better even than the Bogart movie based on it.
  • Indriðason, Arnaldur, Reykjavík Nights (Iceland). Indriðason is a world-class mystery writer, and he seems to be getting better and better.
  • Patrick Modiano, After the Circus (France). A young man falls for an older woman he first sees at a police interrogation.
  • Natsume Soseki, The Gate (Japan). A real find: This quiet writer is a deep one. Even if he died early in the 20th century, his books read as if they were written yesterday. (This writer is not outside of alphabetic order: Natsume is his family name)
  • Raymond Queneau, The Last Days (France). A coming-of-age story with seven characters set in the 1920s.
  • Jonathan Raban, Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings (US). Ostensibly a travel book, but a great one. Real life intervenes twice in the author’s solo sailing voyage up Alaska’s Inside Passage.
  • W G Sebald, The Emigrants (Germany). A book about people who have for various reasons emigrated from their home countries (like Sebald himself), and find themselves in a strange in-between place.
  • Marina Tsvetaeva, Selected Poems (Russia). By far the best poems I have read last year.
  • John Williams, Stoner (US). No, nothing to do with drugs. Professor Stoner is an English instructor at a Midwestern college, and we see how his life plays out.

 

NYRB

Currently My Favorite Publisher

I have always played favorites with particular publishers. When I was in high school and hung around at Schroeder’s Books on Public Square in Cleveland, I was enthralled by the New Directions paperbacks. As I went to college and for years afterwards, I was particularly interested in Penguin Books (though I have been disappointed in how poorly they age). Then, for a while I collected the pocket sized hardback Oxford World Classics. Now, I find myself quite addicted to New York Review Books.

In fact, I recently counted how many NYRB titles I read in 2017. The total came to fifteen titles! They included, in the order I read them:

  • Teffi’s Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi
  • Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama
  • Natsume Soseki’s Mon [The Gate]
  • John Williams’s Stoner
  • Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph
  • Georges Simenon’s Tropic Moon
  • Georges Simenon’s Mr Hire’s Engagement
  • Kingsley Amis’s Girl, 20
  • Kingsley Amis’s One Fat Englishman
  • Patrick Modiano’s Young Once
  • Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up
  • Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago
  • Kingsley Amis’s Take a Girl Like You
  • Raymond Quenaeau’s Zazie in the Metro
  • Henry Green’s Loving

Looking back over this list, there wasn’t a single clinker in the bunch. And my plans for 2018 call for me continuing to plow through the NYRB list.