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The Custodian of Forgotten Books

11 March 2016

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 bookand 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.”

. . . .

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.)

. . . .

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

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7 Comments to “The Custodian of Forgotten Books”

  1. I’m having a hard time deciding how I feel about this. On one hand it’s great that books get new life —

    But I think it’s best the way Project Gutenberg did it.

    Because apparently that editor at the small publisher made an offer for the book’s rights to Carleton’s heirs, and then it looks like he published it and after a while, in turn, sold the rights to Harper Perennial. And let’s be honest, arguably one of the surest ways to ensure obscurity is to take a book that was forgotten decades ago and try to re-convince people that it’s now worth $11 for Kindle.

    Like, what a rights grab and exploitation.

    Oh! And then Harper found a “new” novel from Carleton, who’d previously only published The Moonflower Vine, and decided to publish that one, as well! I guess the whole thing with Harper Lee last year wasn’t a coincidence but rather Harper’s MO lately.

    I’ve just realized I’m not having as hard a time deciding it kind of disgusts me.

    • +1

      “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.

      This has nothing to do with bringing back literary quality and everything to do with making a buck. What has changed in the “last decade or so” is the ability to do ebooks and print-on-demand, making those forgotten books cheap to produce. If the publishers actually had to have a substantial financial outlay up front, those books would remain forgotten.

    • Agreed about Project Gutenberg, Will.

    • “But I think it’s best the way Project Gutenberg did it.

      Because apparently that editor at the small publisher made an offer for the book’s rights to Carleton’s heirs, and then it looks like he published it and after a while, in turn, sold the rights to Harper Perennial.”

      That’s not what happened. Here, from the Riverfront Times article, which is linked in the New York Times Article:

      “In the fall of 2007, Taylor contacted Susan Beasley, who, along with her sister, owns the rights to The Moonflower Vine. He offered her a modest contract for a new edition. Beasley had no experience with publishing and talked to a neighbor who was also a writer. He referred her to his agent, Denise Shannon. Shannon Googled the book and found herself at Bigelow’s site.

      “I said, ‘That’s extraordinary!'” Shannon remembers. “I went online and bought a copy. It’s a very modern-style book that people would enjoy reading today. I told Susan, ‘Let’s try something here; let’s go for a bigger press.'”

      Three publishers bid for the rights, which finally went to Terry Karten, an editor at Harper Perennial.”

      “Oh! And then Harper found a “new” novel from Carleton, who’d previously only published The Moonflower Vine, and decided to publish that one, as well!”

      That’s also incorrect.

      From the Riverfront Times article:

      “n March of this year, Charlie Langdon wrote about the reissue of The Moonflower Vine in his column in the Durango Herald. He also reported that, while sorting through Carleton’s papers after her death, Calloway had discovered the lost manuscript.

      On his way down to Mexico for an extended vacation, Calloway left a copy of The Back Alleys of Spring with Langdon, who read it immediately. In his opinion, Back Alleys is “a good book. It’s not as well-written as The Moonflower Vine, but it’s publishable.”

      When Calloway returns from Mexico, says Langdon, he plans to search for a publisher or, if necessary, publish it himself.”

      The problem with Project Gutenberg is that they only publish public domain books. That severly limits the number and variety of out of print books they can publish.

      • Thanks for that clarification. That makes me feel a little less disgusted by the whole thing. I’d missed that article.

        I don’t see that as a problem with Project Gutenberg; I see that as a problem with public domain. But then, if I had my druthers, I’d hope that work became public domain on the death of the author.

  2. When were books a centerpiece of entertainment? In the sixteenth century, people would gather in taverns and might listen while a literate person read the latest broadsides. Then they would sing ballads, also learned from published pages, probably, but not from books. In the Victorian period (sorry, these are the only two periods I know), people would go to public houses and sing. Or gather around the piano at home or at a party and sing. In neither century, were books the center of anything. Reading was something you did in solitude, mostly, although ladies did have someone read to them while they sewed.
    These pronouncements of literary decline are nonsensical from the historical perspective.

  3. In a novel entitled Shadow of the Wind, there is a fictional “Cemetery of Forgotten Books.” This is a bookstore that specializes in old and rare editions.

    While in college, I lost a library book (a copy of The Scarlet Letter.) I reported this to the librarian who seemed overly pained by this. I suggested that I would pay for a new copy. She told me that sometimes it’s the edition that matters more than just having a copy of the title.

    As a green, undergraduate, non-librarian, I couldn’t appreciate the importance of the distinction she was making.

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