From The New Yorker:
A little over a decade ago, a forgotten book was suddenly remembered. Its second life began when a fiction writer referenced it in a book of her own. A blogger read the new book, then tracked down a copy of the old one, and wrote about all this on his Web site. An archivist read the blog post and e-mailed it to a small publisher. By 2009, Jetta Carleton’s “The Moonflower Vine,” first published in 1962, was back in print.
Most novels are forgotten. Glance at the names of writers who were famous in the nineteenth century, or who won the Nobel Prize at the beginning of the twentieth, or who were on best-seller lists just a few decades ago, and chances are that most of them won’t even ring a bell. When “The Moonflower Vine” resurfaced and ricocheted around the publishing world, it became an unlikely exception.
What’s strange about the journey of that book—and about our moment in the history of publishing—is that its rediscovery was made possible by an independent blogger, named Brad Bigelow. Bigelow, fifty-eight, is not a professional publisher, author, or critic. He’s a self-appointed custodian of obscurity. For much of his career, he worked as an I.T. adviser for the United States Air Force. At his home, in Brussels, Belgium, he spends nights and weekends scouring old books and magazines for writers worthy of resurrection.
“It can just be a series of almost random things that can make the difference between something being remembered or something being forgotten,” Bigelow told me recently. On his blog, Neglected Books, he has written posts about roughly seven hundred books—impressive numbers for a hobbyist, though they’re modest next to the thousands of books we forget each year. “It’s one little step against entropy,” he said. “Against the breakdown of everything into chaos.”
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Bigelow’s interest in obscure books took hold nearly forty years ago. In the nineteen-seventies, he was given a scholarship to study math at the University of Washington, where he spent long hours in the university library. “You can only take so much of that,” he said. When he needed a break from differential equations, he would wander the aisles, pulling books at random off the shelves. Some of his discoveries were unpleasant—one book, with a plain black cover and brittle pages, was full of pictures of dead bodies. “I figured out it was actually propaganda,” Bigelow said; the gruesome images, which supposedly depicted violence committed by Polish soldiers, were meant to justify Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland.
But Bigelow found enough literary ore to keep him prospecting. One of his favorite books is W. V. Tilsley’s “Other Ranks,” an account of everyday life for soldiers in the First World War. Tilsley wrote with a simplicity and directness that amazed Bigelow. When he realized there were only a few hundred copies printed, he made a photocopy of the entire book. (He still has that photocopy, along with half a garage full of dusty books.)
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In recent years, many publishers have come to the same realization as Bigelow—that the graveyard of literary history includes many works worth resurrecting. “It’s a pretty striking change in the last decade or so,” Edwin Frank, the editor of the Classics series from New York Review Books, told me. Frank believes that publishers have the power to change the canon, but only if they’re truly open to lesser-known titles. “Those books are there to search youout,” he said. “They can exist to change your mind about what a book can be.”
Paradoxically, Frank added, the new interest in neglected books can be seen as a reaction to the decline of book culture. Books used to be a centerpiece of both education and entertainment, but television and the Internet have challenged that role. Frank believes that among book lovers, “there’s a kind of sitting and looking—a kind of assessing the culture” going on. We’ve become more aware of what could be lost forever.
There’s an idealism in the attempt to bring back forgotten books. The University of Chicago Press named its series of reissued books Phoenix. Melville House, an independent publisher in New York, called its series Neversink—as if publishers are a life raft for authors who have fallen into the river of forgetting.
Link to the rest at The New Yorker