Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

October 29, 2010

A Busy Weekend in Books

If you aren’t busy enough already shmoozing at the International Festival of Authors, rooting around at the St. Michael’s College Book Sale, or trying to read 40 Canadian novels before November 7th; there’s an extremely exciting alternative available to Torontonians (and her visitors) this weekend: The Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair.

After a month-long marathon of the University of Toronto’s excellent book sales, book-hunters might be inclined to give this one a miss, but step back for a minute and reconsider.  This is not just another book sale.  For the first time in fifteen years, Toronto will be hosting some of the biggest and best rare and antiquarian book dealers in the English-speaking world in one spot, and attempting to pull off a show that compares with the excellent New York and Boston International fairs.  This is a significant step above the lack-luster local Toronto Book Fair & Paper Shows.

Pre-register: this will get you a coupon for $5 the entrance fee, bringing it down to a very reasonable $10 for unlimited access for the whole three days of the show (October 29th, 30th & 31st).  Roughly 50 dealers are scheduled to be showing there wares at the cozy Metro Toronto Convention Centre site.  Among these will be the excellent and approachable local dealers like London, Ontario’s Attic Books and Toronto’s own (organizing force) Contact Editions; as well as big International names like Baltimore’s Kelmscott Bookshop and Maggs Brothers of London.

While firms like Maggs and Adrian Harrington can be reasonably counted on to bring some high-visibility (and high-priced) rarities, don’t think this is just a show for established collectors with deep pockets.  The promises of “something for everyone” are likely to be well-founded.  I’ve always loved looking through Attic Books’ reasonably-priced early-20th century children’s books, or David Mason‘s specialty, the “1st Canadian editions” of important works.  While a show like this isn’t for bargain-hunting cheap used copies of paperbacks, you can still find some under-appreciated treasures in the $10-$50 range.  Furthermore who wouldn’t want to go see some of the higher-profile books or documents?  I might not be able to afford a $275,000 map, but if I should be so lucky, I’d love to glimpse one.

For the amateur collector, this is also an excellent opportunity to approach dealers who don’t keep open shops and sign up to receive their catalogues.  I don’t think I’m the only person who reads catalogues for fun: they’re a treasure trove of bibliographical information, a good way to make wish-lists and the best way to get an idea of what books cost on the market.  The catalogues themselves are also frequently beautiful things.  See the wonderful offerings from Oak Knoll or Roger Gaskell as examples.  You’ll never wonder why so many people collect 18th century scientific treatises ever again.

For full details, visit the Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair’s website.

October 25, 2010

All complaints aside, I’m still excited…

…about the Canada Reads “top 40″ to be announced Thursday!  In the end I folded and submitted a recommendation against my better judgement (it was a past Canada Reads winner, but given I suspect MANY past Canada Reads winners will be on the list, I’d like one on there that actually feels “essential”, to me).  The final list will be, I suspect, a bit of a Janus, with half the list being over-read, popular books the likes of Book of Negroes and Three Day Road, and the other half the product of write-in campaigns organized by enterprising or beleaguered authors.  And honestly, that’s not a bad mix.  If it makes it that way into the final five, we’ll have a fun little reading list.

I am nursing a little wish-list.  Books I’d like to read, but in all honesty probably won’t get to anytime soon if they don’t make the Canada Reads cut.  The sad truth is that for all my whining, I’ve actually read very little “recent” Canadian literature – not even the big sellers.  So with no further ado, here is my top-5 dream-list!

Canada Reads 2011 (If Charlotte Got To Choose)

1. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (I know, I know…)

2.  DeNiro’s Game or Cockroach by Rawi Hage (I’m not picky.)

3.  Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J. Harvey (“epic”, “historical” and an Atlantic Canada Reads nod? I’m in!)

4. The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (I need to laugh now and again, by god.)

5. Elle by Douglas Glover (More history – this time with added feminism!)

***

I’ll have to hold out until next year to get my fix of older titles.  I was so hoping to see certain names on a Canada Reads list — those authors have the misfortune not to have published anything major in the last ten years.  Canada Reads panelists of the future, how I hope you’ll Google me…

Canada Reads 2012 (If Charlotte Got To Choose)

1. The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy

2. Anything by Josef Škvorecký (Swell Season?  Bass Saxophone? Two Murders in my Double Life?)

3. Whiteoaks of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche (Tell me a 16-book Canadian soap opera from the 1930s wouldn’t be dead fun to read.)

4. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson (Poetry, queer lit, historical fantasy and international cred all in one.)

5. Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint (One of his best, I think – short stories.  Pretty please?)

***

Good luck to everyone tomorrow!

October 22, 2010

Dear Publishers: It’s called a “slipcase”.

I’m thrilled to death that publishers are getting behind fancy private library editions; big, beautiful hardcover tomes for display or general celebration of bookness.  We’ve had a particularly meaty month at my bookstores – doorstoppers are coming fast and furious.  Northwestern University Press has published an all-in-one edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, translated by the ubiquitous Burton Raffel.  Yale’s Autobiography of Mark Twain – volume ONE of THREE – weighs in at about 700 pages.  We continue to sell out of copies of Joseph Frank’s 1000-page abridged (from 2500 pages) edition of Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time.

I love big books, I do.  I have a probably unhealthy attraction to works that exceed 500 pages; the more the merrier.  But if I may – as a bookseller and a collector – make a suggestion? These books look lovely sitting flat on a table, but as time passes they inevitably make their way to shelves where they must stand upright, or into paperback editions where they are nearly as thick as they are tall.  They puff-up, tilt and sag.  The Pevear and Volokhonsky War and Peace published by Knopf published in 2007 is probably a case in point – in paperback, the book inevitably looks old and used after a mere two weeks on the shelf.  It is too big.  The binding – especially in paperback – can’t hold shape with so many pages.

This is an easily remedied problem.  It’s called a slipcase.  You’ve seen them before, a nice cardboard sleeve that hugs two or more volumes together in one tight box.  Penguin released a beautiful trade version of The Arabian Nights translated by Lyons & Irwin in 2008 which housed three hardcovers in one slipcase.  See how manageable each volume is?  No slipping, sliding or flip-flopping around.  No puffy, humidity-soaked pages or disintegrating “perfect” binding.  And one wide canvas for all your design needs!

You can have your cake and eat it too: all-in-one editions without asking one binding to hold all those pages in one.  And wouldn’t it be nice? A 3-volume slipcased edition of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy?  Davies’ Deptford Trilogy?  Penguin, please, bloody Clarissa? We will all thank you for it.

October 20, 2010

Again with the Digital Books

Last year I posted in some depth on the subject of academic ebooks – a different subject entirely from frontlist/trade ebooks, let me state right up front.  We’ve had some difficulty selling digital books, and I thought I’d update for 2010, with a view on providing some data to academic ebook publishers.

IT ISN’T WORKING.  Whatever you are doing, stop.  This year, like last, digital “codes” for textbooks was a COMPLETE BUST.  Of one title, we have sold to date 750 traditional textbooks (which include the code for the digital book), and 2 copies of the “code-only”.  The response at the cash is overwhelming – absolutely nobody wants to pay $55 for “nothing” – a piece of paper that gives them access to information for 12 months.  They are willing to pay extra to “get something”.

Similarly, we thought we’d experiment this year with shorting orders of books which could be found online for free (the texts of which can be found at Project Gutenberg or similar).  Students want free books, right?  They love technology?  Once again, the response was overwhelming in favour of “real” books.  Paper books of open-source texts are so cheap anyway that students will pay the $3-$11 to get that “something”.  About the texts online we hear you “can’t make notes”, “I don’t like all that scrolling”, “At least I get to keep it this way”, etc.  The ephemeral nature of an ebook is not lost on these kids.  There is a value to permanence.

Now, there are things that could be done to encourage the sale of the digital book.  The paper books could be sold *without* the digital codes thrown in for free.  Given the ultimatum, more students might go for the digital book over the paper one.  Make the digital texts better suited to printing – that might help too.  But I ask myself, why?

For what are we trying to force digital books on the unreceptive audience?  And I do feel like I’m forcing the issue. Whether it be sending students away when we sell out of a book, telling them to “read it online” (one student has just now informed me that she wants the real book because they can bring a text to their open-book exam, but not a print out.  Another consideration.) or desperately explaining that the “Infotrak” online content isn’t costing them anything extra, and no, they can’t buy it without it; selling students on the idea of digital media is like pulling teeth.  The instructors aren’t onside either – we had one case where we had to send back 350 copies of a textbook because it came bundled with a DVD & online content the instructor didn’t want, and the publisher couldn’t understand why.  (There we sat on the phone having the most unproductive conversation: Them: “But it’s free.” Us: “But they don’t want it.”)

Why are we doing this? Audience reception is part of what has always made me uneasy about ebooks.  Aren’t we putting the cart before the horse?  Was there some great need for a new way to read texts, thus came the ebook?  Were readers clamouring for this technology?  No, technologists came up with something new and they’re trying damn hard to sell it.  Publishers are a wreck, bookstores are panicking and readers are grudgingly trying to find a way to like the technology.  The only people who are happy are the technology manufacturers.

But another year, another step closer to the supposed internet generation.  Maybe next year will be the big year for digital delivery of textbooks.  Or maybe it won’t.  Maybe now that the shine has worn off, we can start having a serious discussion about what constitutes value added.  Right now the product we see looks like ill-considered trash to be thrown out with the cellophane wrapper.  Or maybe if the technology manufacturers are so keen on a Kindle in Every Backpack, they’ll start bundling those for free with the texts.  Just a thought.

ETA: Apparently I’m not alone!

October 15, 2010

“What to Read” Works Itself Out

Want something with a strong, character-driven narrative? Literary credentials?  Depth and length? Elif-Batuman-inspired-Russianness?

How about a brand-shiny-new Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago?

I think I’m in love!

October 15, 2010

A Short Note on Books I Will Probably Never Read

About Cormac McCarthy’s latest, Michael Chabon says, “The Road is not a record of fatherly fidelity; it is a testament to the abyss of a parent’s greater fears.”  The rest of Chabon’s analysis in his essay Dark Adventure, in Maps and Legends, served as just as much of a warning-off: this is a book I will probably never read.

Never say never, I know, but I have to tell you I have no stomach for horror or gore at the best of times, and I am absolutely intolerant of harm and death of children.  Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes floored me with its scenes of baby theft-and-murder swaddled in an otherwise feel-good tale.  Jodi Picoult’s short story “Weights and Measures” in Neil Gaiman’s Stories collection had me tearing up at the cash register at work – I mean, I had to stop for fear that I’d start bawling in the middle of the store.  I don’t think I could ever take an unapologetic, stark look at an unforgiving end-of-the-world scenario starring a little boy who is afforded no innocence.  It ain’t happenin’.

I admit I have similar fears about Emma Donoghue’s Room.  I understand the material is presented with innocence and humour, but the subject matter gives me the shivers.  Is this a mommy thing?  How did it treat the rest of you?  Is my squeamishness unfounded?

October 14, 2010

Characters vs People

Somehow I grew up biased against non-fiction.  I suspect it has to do with the libraries of my parents, stacked wall-to-wall with excellent literary and Canadian novels, interrupted only by old university textbooks.  At first non-fiction seemed boring and later, when I came to know a thing or two about the Public’s reading habits, I associated non-fiction with reading celebrity memoirs or true crime accounts.  Non-fiction was either academic or low-brow.  I forced myself to read non-fiction about 1/3 of the time: I considered this a sort of penance paid for self-education.  Mostly these books were about science, politics, environmentalism or food.  Things about which I felt I ought to be Educated.

So it surprises me to some extent to find that, over the last few years, some of my favourite books have been non-fiction: Eleanor Wachtel’s collections, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading and Deep Economy by Dave McKibbon.  The extent to which I am beginning to prefer a good collection of essays, or a memoir, was made obvious this week as I read Michael Moorcock’s contribution to the Neil Gaiman-edited short story collection, Stories.  Moorcock’s contribution, also called Stories, starts out “This is the story of my friend Rex Fisch…” and launches into the history of a group of writers.  It took me three or four pages to realize that what I was reading wasn’t fiction, but autobiographical.  The shift in my perspective, the sudden sharpening of my interest was a physical sensation, like putting on a new pair of glasses.  Suddenly, this was the best story I’d read yet.  A dozen pages in I hesitated and wondered, maybe this is fiction after all?  Can anyone write fiction that true, that compelling?  All those characters, dates, events, histories, relationships!  The depth and complexity of the story Moorcock is telling seems impossible to replicate in fiction.  Maybe it’s the lack of descriptive landscape, and of poetic language.  Maybe just knowing it’s true makes me more curious.  But something is different.

The best book I’ve read in a long time is Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.  No, maybe not the best.  Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was amazing.  So was Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators.  But I haven’t been as engaged by any book this year the way The Possessed engaged me.  The books is a series of vignettes of Batuman’s time spent In Academia, from life as an undergrad, to post-graduate assignments in Russia in the dead of February.  She sets out explaining that she wanted to be a writer, but that the right path, for her, was to study literature, rather than to study writer’s craft.  The experiences she subsequently racks up, from a summer in Samarkand studying “Ancient Uzbek” to helping to coordinate a conference on Isaac Babel certainly made for meaty retelling.  Somehow I can’t imagine workshopping stories in New Jersey can provide quite the same anecdotal kick (but I could be wrong).  The Possessed was side-splittingly hilarious, insightful and inspiring.  These were good stories.  The complex connections she can draw between her life, the lives of her beloved Russian masters, and the universal experience of life did justice to her ambitions.  I’d read anything Batuman writes now, right down to a laundry list.  She has authority, experience, insight and style.  What more can a novelist boast?

Now, as a life-long devotee of The Novel, I feel I need to engage with something longer and deeper, with characters I can root for and despise, and longer plots I can follow.  I need something that can reaffirm my faith in the novelist’s ability to write as true and as deep as an essayist or memoirist.   Batuman makes me crave Tolstoy – Anna Karenina? – , Moorcock tempts me to explore Dashiell Hammett – I think I have The Thin Man on my shelf – and Michael Chabon now has me re-eyeing Sherlock Holmes.

What would you recommend?  Who are the best story-tellers, the best crafters of narrative truth and story?  I’m in the market for a new book…

October 12, 2010

Two Cents Worth on Canada Reads 2010/2011

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, CBC has announced some fairly major changes to the format of their annual Canada Reads competition in celebration of their 10th anniversary.  The response to the announcement has been mixed, by which I mean everyone is complaining about it.  The reader-responses posted to the Canada Reads website have all been positive, but the media/blogosphere criticism has already drawn out some official justification from the CBC (complete with straw-man defenses, claiming they don’t have the budget to include poetry and short story collections in the competition).

I have done my share of complaining here and there, but after a beautiful weekend’s reflection on the matter, I thought I’d elaborate my primary issues with the new format.

Last year after the announcement of the 5 books in competition, there was a fair amount of disappointment voiced by Canada Reads’ more ardent followers because the list was too contemporary, and included two books which “everyone had read” – Fall on Your Knees and Generation X.  This spawned the Canada Reads spin-offs of which the CBC was so supportive, including Canada Also Reads and Canada Reads Independently.  The genesis of these spin-offs has been ret-conned, it seems, with Canada Reads supporters claiming these stemmed from the success and enthusiasm for Canada Reads, rather than from disappointment in the official list.

For anyone who was paying attention last year, this year’s format-change seems completely baffling.   Rather than shore up last year’s weaknesses and push for a more diverse list, the CBC has decided to go whole-hog in the direction of Fall On Your Knees by presenting a format that will ensure that every book nominated will be something everyone has read.  Three caveats of the competition guarantee this result: the narrowing of the time-frame to the last 10 years, letting readers nominate their favourites and taking the “top 40″ by vote tally, and an odd emphasis on books which have demonstrated “commercial success”.

Now one of two things has happened here:  either I have wildly misjudged who Canada Reads’ followers are, or the CBC has.  Why do we need to have a competition between the five best-selling Canadian books from the last decade?  Are we presuming a great love of re-reading amongst the CBC’s listeners, or is there a secret mass of non-readers who tune in to Canada Reads of whom I am unaware?  A Canada Reads listener will be someone who loves books, and someone who tunes in to the CBC.  Some defenders of the new format have lashed out against criticism, saying Canada Reads is some kind of populist competition, to which I have to say bullshit.  That might be the intent, and I’m sure there are light readers out where who make Canada Reads their one literary excursion per year, but I don’t buy for one second that these make up any kind of listening majority.

I heard a paper delivered once called “Divergent paths? Postcolonialism, book history and Three Day Road” which argued, basically, that there was a gap in the 2006 competition between the readers who loved Three Day Road and the panelists who felt it contained problematic postcolonial themes.  This young academic felt the “average reader” wasn’t picking up on the nuanced issues with the book that panelists did, suggesting that the Canada Reads followers were less sophisticated readers than the panelists.  Sounds like the CBC’s line, right?  During the question period following this paper, the academic was asked what sort of sample she’d drawn on for her research – who were these “average readers” who’d held such strong opinions of Boyden over Toews?  They were, we learned, librarians.  Dozens upon dozens of librarians, people who read all five nominated books and furthermore, were well aware of the postcolonial issues and liked the book anyway.  Four years later, Three Day Road is rising in the opinions of critics, academics and readers, and seems less and less like a simple, entertaining book, suitable mainly for simple readers.

Research sampling is fraught with issues, but nevertheless it fits, in my mind, that Canada Reads listeners would be librarians, book bloggers, book-club members and English graduates.  These people may not be Frederic Jameson or Frank Kermode incarnate, but they are people who read and who think.  They are people who have read the bestselling books of the last five years. I don’t know who could possibly be served by a Book of Negroes nomination.  The book has sold 500,000 copies in Canada.  It might be the favourite book of 50,000 of those people, but that doesn’t mean Canada Reads needs to recommend it to anyone.  We already know.

Let me back-pedal in conclusion, and say that we know not what lies ahead and, who knows, we may be surprised by a short-list of new books that haven’t already won all the major literary awards and bestseller spots.  I will read those books and be glad of it.  But right now it looks unlikely, even if the daily “Reader Recommendations” are to be believed.  I forsee a shortlist of Life of Pi, Three Day Road, and Elle; more laurels on their laurels, and a bored listening public.  I miss keen, unexpected recommendations and rooting for the underdog.  What’s a heavy reader to read?

October 4, 2010

Writing “Great Men”

The subtitle of Iliya Troyanov’s Collector of Worlds had me giddy with excitement: A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton. The last time I’d read a novel of Richard Francis Burton it was To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first book of Philip Jose Farmer’s classic Riverworld saga, in which an eternally resurrected Burton hunts an eternally resurrected Hermann Goring down a river, along which lives every human being who ever lived.

Burton was a gift to Farmer, a figure who was easily as fantastic as his major literary contribution, the first major English translation of the 1001 Arabian Nights.  He spoke 30 languages, completed a Hajj (in 1853 no less, when you really had to walk there), fought more duels “than perhaps any other man of his time”, brought both the Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra to the English-speaking world, and tried in earnest to learn the language of monkeys.  If Farmer had made this stuff up, it would have been gratuitous.  But Burton really lived, publishing widely and kept extensive diaries proving he’d lived, so he was fair game.  In all of human history, he was the one real man suited to serve as the hero of Farmer’s novel.

The possibilities Burton offers to a contemporary, literary writer are many.  Even I, a Burton fangirl if there have ever been any, will admit he is a problematic figure.  He may have been something of a real-life Allan Quartermain, but Burton could not have been Burton and Quartermain could not have been Quartermain if the British hadn’t been swarming all over Africa and the Middle East during that period, conscripting, bullying and shooting the locals.  Even Burton’s unusual sensitivity to the rights and customs of the local people is offset by his participation, and a sense that he is treating his life as an extravagant circus-show.

Still, I have the sense that there was something different about Burton, something which set him apart from his peers.  Regardless of his moral culpability, he did things no man before him did, spoke loudly against things no other man would (to the great detriment of his career and personal life), and left a bigger footprint than almost anyone else.  Whatever sort of man he was, he was a special one.  Therein is the meat and potatoes of a great novel.

The biggest disappointment of Troyanov’s treatment of the material is that it is boring.  He takes on the modern task of filing all the heights of the Burton legend down, laboriously and at length turning exciting and remarkable episodes of his life into bland, introspective, third-person accounts.  The “action” (as it were) is narrated by three “native” observers: a Hindu manservant, three Turkish officials, and the Yao guide Sidi Mubarak Bombay.  All of these observers are deeply confused by Burton as a man, and so their recollections of him are marked by a total inability to account for anything he does.  Burton is never allowed to speak for himself in these chapters.  As soon as he opens his mouth, his words are replaced by a banal description of approximately what he might have said.  Burton is given an interspersed “point of view”, but it also fails to speak for the man.  These passages are psychological episodes.  Rather than put you in the event, they remove you by fogging the view with the ramblings of Burton’s memories, or self-doubt.  Again, he never seems to speak.  He hums and haws his way through a Hajj and a months-long hike from Zanzibar to Lake Tanganyika.  There is certainly an expert hand drawing the scenes for this play.  The landscapes and weather patterns of North and East Africa some so alive as to make the reader shiver and sweat along with the suffering characters.  And perhaps this was Troyanov’s project to some extent: to show a place so unmasterable that even characters written into its midst can’t take their place at the top of the narrative hierarchy.  Burton, along with the rest of the British (and local, for that matter) life, was barely a smudge on the inalterable qualities of Africa.

If that be the case, I say: pick someone other than Burton!  Why squander such a wonderful character by burying him in all this noise?  Unless the project is to bury him, and all I can say to that is that I think our historical memory is poorer for it.

It isn’t that I think the task of fiction is the romanticize our history: far from it.  But any treatment of a historical personage – especially one with such a legendary reputation as Burton – has to address the question of why he or she has the reputation he has.  If Burton is just another Brit, this time with an affinity for languages, why have we made of him the legend that we have?  What special, or privileged, or misinterpreted, or unrecorded quality of the man or his chroniclers brought about the history we’ve written and accepted?  This is probably the central question of a much better work of historical fiction: Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators. Koestler, like Troyanov, has chosen an oft-romanticized but problematic historical figure as the centre of his novel – this time the escaped gladiator-slave and revolutionary Spartacus.  Koestler’s account of the events of the Gladiator War (73-71 BCE) is nuanced, politically astute, and incredibly relevant.  He deftly shows that the problems of leaders two thousand years ago are the same problems of leaders today, and the ethics of leadership are every bit as knotty and unappreciated.  This war is bloody and completely without heroes, without a “good guy” or “right” in sight.  Nevertheless, Spartacus emerges as an important figure.  He has been humanized, especially when compared to Kirk Douglas’s bronzed swashbuckler.  He flirts heavily with tyranny and commits many atrocities.  His followers denounce him from time to time, and he makes no friends.  And yet we understand what it is that makes him a hero of history.  His character might be complicated, but it hasn’t been diminished.

Whether the role of the novelist is to serve history or simply to tell a story, the use of real people is a powerful tool.   History has already awarded them weight.  You need to treat the character as if they carry that weight, either to offset the weight with other devices or to address why it’s there.  You can’t pretend it isn’t there.  Or you could, I suppose, but the result (in my case, at least) with make the reader suspicious of your motivations or storytelling skill.

October 1, 2010

It’s Raining Deluxe Editions!

I (and others) have observed over the last few years that the rise of the eBook might be a Good Thing ™ for those of us who love and value the art of the book.  Relegating most of the drivel published to an appropriately temporary medium might free up print resources for those things which benefit from a tactile existence – that is to say, it might widen and clarify the difference between works read unthinkingly to pass the time, and works owned to preserve and venerate the quality contents.  The books one wants to own and the books one wants to read are not always the same.  Perhaps the Reader would spend more on the former if they could spend less on the latter (insert snarky comment about the long-standing existence of libraries here).

I have absolutely no data to back up this claim, but I am starting to detect actual evidence of this trend.  Not that the flow of cheaply printed works of drivel has lessened any (maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t – I like to think we don’t stock or sell these things, so as a bookseller I’m pretty oblivious to them), but the availability of premium editions from mainstream publishers – that is, not from small and private presses who’ve been producing these all along – has really increased.  These books might not be exactly to the standard of an artisan private press work, but they certainly are striving to appeal to the sensibilities of collectors.

Harvard University Press’s new release Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition (annotated by Patricia Meyer Spacks) is a beautiful example.  The book is bound in ochre cloth with the most lovely wood-grained endpapers, and is lavishly illustrated throughout with historical references, diagrams and portraits.  It’s a non-standard 9 x 9 1/2″, and weighs a tonne because of the excellent paper stock.  Best of all, it’s fantastically affordable at $35US.


“Dover Publications” doesn’t bring to mind “quality editions”, so they wisely launched their latest enveavor under the imprint Calla Editions.  These hardcover editions are mainly reprints (as is most of Dover’s catalogue) of classic illustrated editions from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  But oh my goodness, who cares?  These are stunning reproductions of iconic editions illustrated by Golden Age artists like Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen and Harry Clarke.  The list keeps expanding, too – I’m giddy at the possibility that I might someday get a big, beautiful edition of one of my favourites from Dover – E.R. Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros, illustrated by Keith Henderson.  Once again, the price is right – the backlist thus far has come in at $50-$54 CDN per volume.

In honour of Puffin’s 70th anniversary, they have released these Puffin Designer Classics. These limited-edition runs of classic children’s books are drop-dead gorgeous in jpg form – I’ve yet to see one in person, though! I’ve pictured their edition of The Secret Garden because it is probably the most stunning – but unsurprisingly, I’d line up for their Treasure Island in glass-bottle slipcase!

Both Barnes & Noble and Penguin Classics are onboard, of course. I saw my first Penguin Hardcover Classic (left) in the wild at Type on Queen St. the other day, and it exceeded my expectations. Generally I’ve found Penguin Classics to be cheaply made, overpriced- and subjected to Pearson’s insane book packaging and shipping methods, which frequently end in bent and damaged books. But they weren’t messing about with these editions- the paper is more forgiving, the bindings are tight and of course, they look wonderful. Barnes and Nobles’ Leatherbound Classics (right) I can’t attest to – but they give a mean photograph.

In administrative news, I’m back! Apologies for the extended summer vacation – the bookstore has been a zoo busy lately, only now settling down to our usual, sit-and-read pace. I have a backlog of reviews, interviews and reports to kick out, so I hope you’ll be back. Happy autumn!