Tuesday, 5 April 2016

On the afterlife of deceased books

One of the books that meant the world to me and still does is Leila Berg’s Flickerbook – a memoir in fragments, telling her life from birth in 1917 (Manchester working-class Jewish background) up to the moment when, on a bus, she hears of the outbreak of the Second World War. Granta published it in 1997. It went out of print. I went to see Leila Berg in around 2008, wanting to re-issue the book with CBe. That didn’t happen (long story). Leila died in 2012. Not one of her books (she published around 50) is currently in print.

Some more books that have meant the world to me and that are now out of print (or in print but only just, to the point where they may as well not be; or in print, just, in the US but not here): Alfred Hayes, In Love; James Kennaway, Silence; James Buchan, Slide; Gianni Celati, Voices from the Plains; Denis Johnson, The Name of the World; Aleksander Wat, Selected Poems; Hanna Krall, The Woman from Hamburg. I could go on, of course I could.

What happens to books when they die?

If they are very, very lucky, they get get re-issued by NYRB – a completely superb publisher whose list I could live off, whose re-issues are well designed and carry expert and passionate introductions from contemporary writers. Less lucky, they get re-issued by Faber Finds – which is, compared to NYRB, tacky: no introductions, badly designed, print-on-demand, over-priced. Barely lucky, they have an afterlife on abebooks or amazon ‘used & new’ (Flickerbook is there for a penny; I’ve bought so many copies myself and then given them or ‘lent’ them that I’m happy to see it still flickering). Or on a trestle table at a primary school summer fair, which was where I picked up Nina Fitzpatrick’s Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia, another book I’d go to the wall for. Or they get a post on one of those blogs that specialise in dead books. No luck, then no afterlife at all.

Earlier this year, someone I was talking to about my vain attempt to bring Flickerbook back into print used the F-word. ‘Oh, no point in fetishising books’ – something like that. I’m thinking that he’s maybe right. Books can die, vanish. Almost all of them do just that. Survival is pretty random. Ars longa, vita brevis is just one of those things your granny tells you.


billoo said...

"I could go on, of course I could."

I wish you would! Thought Hayes was utterly sublime but had to put down two of your other recommendations after 20 pages (sorry!). Also bought the Leila Berg on your suggestion (not read it yet) but hoping it's as good as Molly Hughes's memoir. And thanks for pointing us to Marjorie Watts as well: excellent!



Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Charles

For some strange reason, a lot of excellent books end up dead or remaindered. Probably because the general public prefer thrillers and chick lit. By the way, have you read Helena Nelson's 'How (Not) To Get Your Poetry Published.' In it she quotes more from you than anybody else.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish