Archives for category: Reviews

I find intellectual property a rather offensive term. Maybe because it always sounds a tiny bit boastful, but perhaps also because I’d prefer not to have to think of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck as intellectuals! Of course under copyright, the IP law we principally deal with, it’s not the ideas that are protected, just the tangible expression of the ideas, the form of words in which they are expressed. Apparently I’m not alone in this unease about the term: the Wikipedia article outlines the arguments. Intellectual property is protected by three main legal maneuvers — copyright, patents and trademarks, though there are other less obvious methods including trade secrets law, industrial design rights, and trade dress.

The Scholarly Kitchen brings us a thoughtful review by Karin Wulf of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction. VSIs live in bookshops in their own spinners, replenished on an ongoing basis. However the spinner in the New York store where I eventually got hold of the book a couple of weeks ago doesn’t seem to be being replenished by anyone. I went into one branch or other of Book Culture’s three outlets over a period of four months or so, only to be told thrice that the book was out of stock at the publisher. (Maybe they just said “out of stock”, and cynic that I am, I assumed this meant a screw up at the publisher. I knew that the books in this series are printed in England, so delays might be possible.) On my fourth visit the indiscrete assistant told me they’d actually never received their first order into the store, and that if I wanted to order it I could have it in a day or two as the books had been lying in their warehouse since March. I did, and 24 hours later, there it was. And Book Culture is one of New York’s more successful book chains! Of course this isn’t an expensive book, but what bookstore can afford to ignore a well-reviewed $11.95 book, one that is getting customer enquiries, and especially one where the spinner merchandising format is intended to make customers pick up more than the single volume they’d come looking for?

Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions is a successful series of brief authoritative introductions to a wide variety of (serious) topics. The VSI site suggests there are 533 of them, while the OUP site listed in the book yields  a count of 577. The book itself claims 508. Either way it’s a lot, and the number is growing rapidly. The series is clearly modeled on the Que sais-je series published by les presses universitaires de France. To me, it’s an obvious idea for a university press with good trade distribution. I floated the idea of just such a Que sais-je knockoff series when I was a junior editor in Cambridge 45 or so years ago — I clearly didn’t pursue it with sufficient energy! More fool me.

Professor Vaidhyanathan emphasizes that it was the development of search engines and the internet which turned the rather quiet world of intellectual property protection into the frenzied money business it is now. Suddenly it looked like everything was about to leak away, and suddenly we all realized how valuable it all might be. Copyright was quickly transformed from individual right into corporate asset. He uses the concept of paracopyright to describe the erosion of our rights under copyright. Of course we all tend now to copy and paste with gay abandon, working on the assumption that if someone put it up without any protective notice they must be willing to see it reused. It’s like a Creative Commons license without any acknowledgment thereof — at least I hope so!

The author writes in an easy style including lots of anecdotes. He reveals that the story of the loss of copyright in the song “Happy Birthday to You” has a kicker, in that Warner/Chappell were adjudged by a US court in 2015 never to have held copyright at all in the song on which they’d been cleaning up permissions fees for decades. They have already settled for $14 million to people wrongly charged for using the song.

We need to remember that IP laws tend to vary from nation to nation. Professor Vaidhyanathan tells us how Angelica Huston was able to prevent the colorization of her father’s film The Asphalt Jungle — but in France only, not USA. Under US copyright law John Huston was regarded as having made the work for hire, and thus to have owned no rights in the movie. His daughter thus didn’t inherit any rights, but in France the force of the “right of paternity”, a moral right under le droit d’auteur, enabled her to assert creative control on her father’s behalf.

Professor Vaidhyanathan’s book is a notable achievement of compression, and anyone involved in the media will benefit from reading it. Maybe you’ll even be able to find it on Book Culture’s spinner now.

 

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Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, but who’s got the motivation to place hostile or wildly favorable fake reviews on Amazon? Hillary Clinton’s latest, What Happened was published last Tuesday, and overnight more than 1,600 reviews had been posted on Amazon. The reviews were extremely polarized, about half panning it and half giving it 5 stars. While it is of course possible that these people all stayed up all night to read the book, the assumption is that they were motivated by the same sort of animus on display during our recent election. Amazon has decided to remove all the reviews, as presumptively “fictitious”, except for the 338 which were posted by Verified Purchasers, customers who had definitely bought the book at Amazon and so had at least paid for it. It is of course impossible to know whether these Verified Purchasers had actually read the book overnight. Slate (via Book Riot) reports on Amazon’s response.

Polarization seems to be our default mode nowadays. Even people who don’t hold extreme views seem to feel the need to express their moderation in extreme terms. I was chided just the other day for demanding death and destruction for those who don’t toe my mild liberal line.

I dare say a bunch of reviews, good or bad, is not going to make much difference to the sales of Secretary Clinton’s book. You’re not going to be reading it because critics say it’s well crafted literature (I’ve no idea whether it is or isn’t): you’re going to be reading it because you are interested in what she has to say by way of explanation for an election loss which many still find hard to believe. It’s the sort of book you order without thoughts of quality: you just want to know what it says. I’d be surprised (if it weren’t for this kerfuffle) if anyone would have bothered to look at the Amazon reviews. And, other than letting off steam, what do the reviewers think their reviews are going to achieve? Does anyone think that a single person is going to decide against buying the book because “Wrathful of Podunk” claims it’s no good? Or the opposite I guess goes for the Clintoniacs.

All publicity is good publicity.

The first thing that struck me about Keith Houston’s The Book (W. W. Norton, 2016, $29.95) was the deconstructed binding. It’s like a three-piece binding without the sides. The only bit of cloth is the red spine. The bare binders board is exposed front and back, teaching by showing how a book’s case is constructed. I don’t think you can make it out in this photo, but the only thing on the back board which isn’t printed black on the raw board is the barcode. In order that the barcode should be scannable (i.e. have sufficient definition and clarity) they have had to print it on a white label and stick it (very straight and accurately) onto the board. It’s wonderful what these Chinese book manufacturers can (still) do.

You can see the braces down the side of the copy identifying the different elements. This technique (again, teaching by showing) continues inside the book, as can be seen from this photo of page 1.

Every Chinese schoolchild can (allegedly) tell you that Cai Lun invented paper, and Mr Houston tells the story, with narrative aplomb. Mark Kurlansky doesn’t beat about that bush “Cai Lun did not invent paper” he states in his Prologue: after his account Mr Houston also reveals to us that records exist of paper being made in China long before Cai Lun’s time, but his story is the one that sticks in the mind.

Mr Houston is a reliable and entertaining narrator. I think it’s fair to say that in his 26 pages about paper making you will develop a better understanding of the procedure than you’d garner from the entire 336-page volume Paper by Mr Kurlansky.

The focus of the book is historical. We learn about the development of writing systems, the making of papyrus, the growing popularity of parchment and paper, the work of scribes, all the major figures in book history, plus how what we now expect in a book and its format came to evolve. It’s not that you won’t develop an understanding of today’s book manufacturing industry — you’ll just pick it up as it were along the way. And the author does end the book with a very detailed colophon telling us all about this particular book’s manufacture, in China where we seem to have to go nowadays to get anything done in the old-fashioned ways at an affordable price.

The book is generously annotated. There are 62 pages of endnotes, and a sprinkling of footnotes. There isn’t a complete bibliography; rather a 3-page list of Further Reading, which is I guess OK. You can dig anything special out of the endnotes. Many color illustrations are spread throughout, printed on the cream text stock: some of these are a bit flat and murky though.

This is a very good book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Mr Houston, who is the man behind the Shady Characters blog, will be giving a talk on book history at The British Library on 3 July. I bet it’ll be worth the ten quid.

 

9780393239614_198Mark Kurlansky’s book Paper: Paging through history (W. W. Norton, $27.95) is the sort of book I should love. I’m interested in the subject; it’s a good-looking bit of production; I know a little about paper and should be a sucker for dollops of recondite information about the subject. So why did I find it so hard to read?

This is a busy book in which we learn a little bit about a lot of things. The author tells us too much about a few things and too little about too many. — Scouring around for topics to write about? Here’s one: hanji.* OK, two paragraphs’ll do — now off to China. In a book about paper where the uses for paper other than as “communication paper” get virtually no mention (though to be fair, some such uses do occasionally get mentioned and then mentioned again, just rarely discussed in any depth) we should not perhaps be surprised that something as omnipresent as the toilet roll only gets a single glancing reference. Well one’s better than none, which is what many uses of paper get. We do get several separate references to the paper required for bullets, but we are never told what distinguishes this paper from say, tissue paper (which isn’t mentioned at all) and what characteristics it requires. I suppose origami is relevant in a work about paper: but relevant enough to get more attention that the difference between coated and uncoated papers, or wood-free as against groundwood (which I can’t remember ever being directly referenced here)? Marbled paper is dealt with as if it were a distinct form of paper: surely it’s not — it’s a method of printing on paper, which, surprise surprise, is actually paper. I did learn that those leather-look labels on jeans are in fact made of paper! The irresistible diversion is rarely resisted: we are told much more about the origins of the French national anthem than we are to learn about calender rolls. I have to concede that the mechanics of making paper by hand gets a decent amount of attention, if only cumulatively, here and there.

Now this bittiness may actually be intentional. The trick of following an apparently unimportant item wherever it takes you does of course constitute Mr Kurlansky’s schtick. He did it with Cod, which I remember enjoying, and with Salt. Trouble is, paper is a bit more unfocussed than these basic items. Cellulose might have been a better title for Mr Kurlansky’s bent, except that nobody would have bought such a book. Or Wood. He should probably write about fairly straightforward things with an interesting variety of uses, rather than a complex product, available in a dizzying variety of forms, with correspondingly myriad uses. His tour d’horizon technique breaks down here: he starts his survey historically and then slides into a sort of regional tour of the world.

The main cleverness in quoting Eden Phillpotts’ novel Storm in a Teacup may reside in actually having located a novel about paper making. Surely one could come up with references to labor issues in the paper industry as it transitioned from a hand craft to a machine industry which were not fictional.

There is a book to be written here. Take time to make it clear, with step-by-step description and diagrams and pictures how paper is made and what it’s made of. Then take a variety of products and tell us something meaningful about them. I bet there’s a story, more interesting that Mr Kurlansky’s single mention, behind wallpaper. We could be told more about cartridge paper — I mean paper used in cartridges, not the smooth opaque sheet of paper made in Britain (which isn’t mentioned here at all). Paper in building might be nice to know about. The humble paper bag probably has more to it than meets the eye. The one I’m looking at now, a plain white bag which holds a loaf from our local supermarket, tells me it was made by Novolex in Florence, Kentucky. Why? They have a plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Is there a story here? If so, Mr Kurlansky doesn’t tell it. Certainly paper as used by artists could be an interesting chapter — here it’s dealt with piecemeal, now here, now a few chapters on, and then again near the end of the book.

However one should not review the book the author didn’t write: this is the one he did come up with. Maybe I care too much about the subject. When you notice small errors of fact about something you know, you inevitably begin to suspect error lurking behind every statement. But that’s not even the main problem I had: the book needs to be thoroughly shaken into focus. It has lots of good little bits spread about. It’s organization and editing that are desperately needed. The book has the feel of a suggestion leaped upon by a writer flailing about for an idea for his next project. But Mr Kurlansky has already written 28 books: surely ideas are not what he’s lacking. Sad to say, the book gives the impression it was written as a pile of good ideas each drafted separately on a bunch of 4″ x 6″ index cards which were then dropped on the floor and reassembled in slightly random order. I found it hard to read, and was disappointed.

The publisher manages to get in on the pervasive imprecision, selectiveness and softness of focus in their colophon† — nice that they have one of course. Here they tell us “This book was printed on Sebago paper, an acid-free sheet manufactured by Glatfelter, a prominent American paper maker founded in 1864.” None of this is wrong: it’s just slightly misleadingly put together, and omits certain (to me anyway) important details. What basis weight was the paper, how many ppi, what shade? Sebago is actually a sheet supplied by Lindenmeryr Paper Company, a paper merchant. They do get it made in Spring Grove, but could make it elsewhere — I remember its being made for them in Maine at the S. D. Warren plant. Glatfelter could sell you a sheet which matches it closely, but they couldn’t sell you Sebago; only Lindenmeyr can do that. Not that important, I agree; but too trivial to get wrong surely.

Mark Kurlansky will be addressing the April 11th meeting of The Book Industry Guild of New York.

______________

* Literally “Korean paper. It’s made of the bark of the paper mulberry, or sometimes Broussonetia kazinoki — the same bark as is used for washi. The book is full of facts.

† I used this colophon as an illustration to my recent post on Dante, the typeface in which this book is set, so you can read it there.

Here’s an interesting piece on why self-published books tend not to get reviewed. According to the review editor quoted (he is talking about children’s books) there are just too many of them; many aren’t that good; many don’t have a sense of their real audience; many self-published authors don’t have a clear idea of their market. Any journal just cannot afford to spend the hours needed to sift through the hundreds of thousands of potential offerings which they would be inviting by soliciting indie books. I suppose if there were any method by which a good self-published book could easily be identified from the mass, then it would be safe for review media to cover them. It’s the finding and analyzing them that’s prohibitive. I have seen one or two self-published books reviewed in traditional review media, but these must have resulted from the coincidence of the editor’s hearing by chance about the book. There just isn’t any mechanism for a regular scrutiny of the universe of self publishing. We all, and review editors in particular, may well be the losers because of this, but the stark reality is if the author is the publisher, there will be an irresistible tendency for all geese to be described as swans.

The traditional book trade has evolved methods by which such pre-sorting gets done. At The Washington Post “we’re getting about 150 books a day. A day. And these are books that had to find an agent. And then a publisher. And then were professionally edited. And now are being professionally marketed by people with money on the line. Many of these books, of course, are bad, but many — far more than we can review — are interesting, engaging, informative, moving, timely and/or newsworthy for various reasons.” Note in this sentence that one of the “methods” that traditional publishing has evolved is an acceptance of the brutal fact that not every book, not even every good book, will get reviewed. We are accustomed to accepting that you can’t win ’em all. If you are publishing your own work, accepting this is obviously much, much harder.

Maybe the self-publishing world will settle down and develop a means by which a similar sorting methodology can be achieved. But just as self publishing is a different business than traditional publishing, so unfortunately will the reviewing of self-published books probably have to be done somehow differently. That we have not yet worked out what this means surely doesn’t mean we never will. One probable route is the on-line review, though just how readers can become aware of reviews they might be interested in is a hard problem. A sort of crowd-sourcing Goodreads model may end up being the answer. Of course, getting your book reviewed is one kind of problem: getting it favorably reviewed is a horse of a different color. Businesses, and no doubt individuals, have not always been above trying to get the fix in. Well at least review integrity is secure in California, where they’ve passed a law imposing a $10,000 fine on companies which seek to enter contracts prohibiting unfavorable on-line reviews. Gigaom brought the news.

 

IMG_0373The Bind is a graphic novel by William Goldsmith published in 2015 by Jonathan Cape. It tells the story of the creation in 1912 of a wildly extravagant binding of a poetry book, A Moonless Land, by Edward Skirmish, a poet bitten to death by a spider. Egret Bindings is jointly owned by two brothers, Guy and Victor Egret, though the ghost of their father, who founded the business, acts as our guide throughout, wafting here and there through the large bindery. Guy is the business man, though also a talented binder, and Victor, a creative genius of bookbinding, is the flamboyant impresario of the operation. The plot involves the making of duplicate fake copies of the jewel-encrusted binding using worthless jewels. Their obnoxious customer Mr Theodore Pointe has annoyed Victor by writing from New York to complain that the binding, for which he appears already to have paid, is late. Apparently he’s such an artistic collector that he never opens his objet d’art bindings, and this gives Victor the idea for the fake binding. He won’t be using a second set of sheets of the book — I guess that’s not obtainable — he’ll provide dummy pages with dummy text. “The uncut pages would contain nothing but filth.” He makes the staff work at night duplicating after hours the steps they’ve taken on the real binding during the day. Just why Guy should decide to make a second duplicate to dupe Victor isn’t altogether clear, but he does, fools Victor and fires him. Victor dies in the War. Guy, understandably depressed, is brought to his senses by being hit by a bus, throws the genuine A Moonlight Land into the Thames, and ultimately opens up a new Egret Bindings.

IMG_0375The style of illustration is loose and flowing, done by brush not pen, and this presents a bit of a problem in identifying which brother is doing what. The book is printed China by C & C Offset in shades of black (grey) and brown. The brown drops away when we go into flashback mode. This is of course not a how-to manual though we do get taken through the steps of binding a book. It’s fascinating to reflect that (as I assume to be the case) there really were establishments like this, retailing elaborate bindings to a customer-base that would line up to get into the showroom when it opened in the morning. One trembles to think what may lie in store for the new Egret Bindings after its opening in 1919.

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Lots of people have said that the arrival of digital books should free us from the design constraints established over the centuries for printed books. Unsurprisingly action in this regard has been a while coming. Here are some early signs of development. The New World by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz is described in this Gizmodo post. I think the techy enthusiasm is a bit overstated. The New World is a fine book, but its technical “breakthroughs” are neat but not utterly amazing. You read it on the Atavist app which is available fee of charge. There are no page breaks: each chapter is one “page”. You scroll down till you get to the end. That’s logical. The text is unjustified, with a regular word space, an arrangement which (to me) is superior to say Kindle’s fixation with justification. When you get to the end of the chapter you swipe right to left to move to the next chapter. About half way through it reaches another title page labelled Cycle Two and at that point an arrow indicates that you start swiping left to right to navigate back as it were to the new chapters. In each chapter the text is enclosed in a colored box, maroon for Jane’s point-of-view and blue for Jim’s. When the viewpoint is shared the colors mingle, turning gradually to a deep purple. The final chapter is in its own Cycle, Three, and has no color border.

IMG_0134This zigzag navigation is picked up in the chapter heading design. Illustrated at the left is the start of the final chapter, in Cycle Three. When you start to work through the book you only see the top box above the text, which as you progress gets more and more zigs and zags; one for each chapter. When you make the turn to Cycle Two the second row appears and fills from right to left with zigs as you progress from chapter to chapter. The final Cycle contains only the one chapter and, as symbolized by the design, is in effect endless, finishing up with a repetition over and over of some phrases from Jane and Jim’s wedding vows. I am not 100% sure of this, but it appears that the narrative action has reached its furthest forward point at the switch over from Cycle One to Cycle Two, neatly mirrored in the reverse direction of your swiping from chapter to chapter. Cycle Two is flashback and Cycle Three a sort of beyond-the-grave kind of communication, I think. The chapter heading design does echo this rather well. The little box at the top left takes you to the front matter at any time, with the option of going to any of the Cycles — a sort of contents list.

Atavist has recently been recipient of an injection of funds Capital New York tells us (via Publishing Executive Insight). Here’s a story from NiemanLab, via Ink, Bits, & Pixels, describing some improvements they are making. We wish them luck and look forward to yet more innovation. I do think that their approach is better than the enhanced e-book route (see this Publishing Perspectives story). I believe a book is a book, and a movie is a movie. If I decide to read the book, I doubt if I’m going to want impulsively to switch over in medias res to a movie clip, or a suggestive photo, or whatever bell or whistle is on offer. We’ll see.

Is it amusing that these born-digital books like The New World and The Silent History are being picked up by traditional publishers for regular print publication? Probably inevitable, and after all why not?

The romance community is rather remote for me, but The Passive Voice brings us news of trouble in paradise. Specifically the trouble relates to pseudonymity — is it OK for a reviewer to travel under a pseudonym if that results in their seeing all the bitching about their reviews, which nobody would dream of doing to their face? The piece is pretty long. I’m not sure the anonymous poster has much of a complaint in the end. Surely we all have to assume that everything we say in public — and what’s more public than the internet — is heard by all who might be interested? To think that anything you write on-line is not going to reach everyone who might be interested is just self-deception. In the olden days we were told that insulting remarks written on a postcard were potentially actionable for libel because there was a legal assumption that a postcard would have been read in transit. Same problem surely.

UnknownOn Paper by Nicholas Basbanes is a large, handsome book published by Knopf. Given their commitment to fine book making, exemplified by their informing readers about typefaces in a colophon (I guess maybe they’ve stopped doing this) it’s a little surprising that they don’t tell us what paper the book was printed on. I don’t think they did anything extra special though: it’s a perfectly nicely formed cream/natural sheet, probably 55#, bulking at about 384ppi. It gives the book a satisfying heft, and has been nicely printed.

I’m afraid I find Nicholas Basbanes’ writing utterly soporific. By all rights I should love what he does — he writes about stuff I am fascinated by — but I seem unable to finish any of his books. The subtitle of the book may hint at my problem: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History by a Self-Confessed Bibliophiliac. The bit about the Bibliophiliac is actually not really part of the subtitle: it’s more a catch-line on the jacket. But that’s the bit that gets me I suspect. It’s just overdoing it. You’ve got a perfectly good story here: don’t gussy it up with fancy writing. Having managed to struggle on to about two-thirds of the way through, I can’t really remember anything I’ve learned from his book, though it is true that the account of visiting hand papermakers in China with which the book starts does go pretty well.

Meanwhile I get, via Publishing Cambridge, this THES review of Lothar Müller’s White Magic, (Polity Press). It sounds from the review  a more lively book, but of course the review of On Paper in The TLS is what made me want to read that book in the first place. White Magic seems an altogether livelier account: one can get a pretty good flavor at Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.

When life was slower and less efficiency-driven we used to spend time thinking about which paper was most appropriate for this or that book. The rule at the University Printing House in Cambridge was that mathematics would always be printed on a smooth white sheet. The less scientific you got the yellower the paper could be. Belles lettres (does such a category really exist or is it just a handy label for those lightly literary books published for the carriage trade?) might get a cream laid paper, with, if you wanted to go really wild, a watermark. We tended to want to put an entire series on the same paper: thus all the volumes of The Letters of D. H. Lawrence would be printed on the same Mohawk sheet. The trouble with this is that such series take years to complete, and in the meantime mills rationalize their lines or even go out of business without regard to whether you have finished your series or not. Some university presses have inventoried large quantities of paper and book cloth for this reason: with often tragic results. After a few years knocking about in a warehouse your stock will by looking slightly different, and will certainly be less than you started out with. Damage, decay and loss are endemic, though leaking roofs are rarer. Now that our industry is so driven by profit targets and ever greater efficiencies, the idea of buying paper for an individual book is incredible. Now we use a couple of standard sheets and sizes, and shoehorn our books into the mould.

9781590171998_jpg_200x450_q85Stoner is “a perfect novel” said Morris Dickstein in the review that got it all going. Stoner himself is a “perfect protagonist” according to Ruth Rendell. The book stumbled upon first publication and has been reissued a couple of times since, but it wasn’t until its publication by New York Review Books in 2006 that it really took off. Here’s a Publishers Weekly story from April 2013 about the book’s success, which continues to this day.

Last week I went to a book event organized by The Community Bookstore at the Brooklyn Public Library on the 18th of November at which Ruth Rendell, Honor Moore, and Daniel Mendelsohn discussed the book under the moderation of Liesl Schillinger. It was an altogether excellent event. And it got me thinking that Stoner is a rather bookish book.

William Stoner, (Bill to his colleagues, Willy to his awful wife) deliberate, steady, slow-moving man, transfers from agriculture to English literature after a classroom epiphany, when he is unable to find the words to say what Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “means”. Later, as a graduate student instructor “He found his release and fulfillment in the classes in which he himself was a student. There he was able to recapture the sense of discovery he had felt on that first day, when Archer Sloane had spoken to him in class and he had, in an instant, become someone other than who he had been. As his mind engaged itself with its subject, as it grappled with the power of the literature he studied and tried to understand its nature, he was aware of a constant change within himself; and as he was aware of that, he moved outward from himself into the world which contained him, so that he knew that the poem of Milton’s that he read or the essay of Bacon’s or the drama of Ben Jonson’s changed the world which was its subject, and changed it because of its dependence upon it.”

The story of William Stoner’s life, Stoner, changes the world which is its subject, Stoner, because of its dependence on him. Books are or stand for his deepest love, and books mark his life’s progress. In a book naked of metaphor, written in simple, slow-moving language reflective of the protagonist’s own internal dialog, the hidden surprise is that the entire work is a meta-metaphor. Stoner isn’t living his life so much as reading a book about it. Panelists spoke about Stoner’s passivity and lack of intervention in events going on around him. Events, often quite dramatic, do come up. Stoner, however, takes in the events reflectively and for the majority of us justly, and then turns to the next page. When his wife would rant at him “. . . Stoner looked upon it all—the rage, the woe, the screams, and the hateful silences—as if it were happening to two other people, in whom, by an effort of the will, he could summon only the most perfunctory interest.” His action consists in deciding not to act, as we all must do when reading a book. We sometimes feel like shouting “Bill, don’t do it” but we never do. We remain silent. Readers always remain silent, but not unchanged. Stoner is no different; he is reading the book of his life, the book of life.

Maybe it’s no more than a cheap coincidence, but if Stoner had been working in a British university his job title, as he never got promoted from assistant professor, would have been Reader.

Stoner published one book, a revision of his PhD dissertation. He took up the dissertation quite early in his difficult marriage and “decided that a book was possible; by early spring he was far enough along to be able to write the first tentative pages.  ¶ It was in the spring of the same year that, calmly and almost indifferently, Edith told him that she had decided she wanted a child.” The baby girl and the book were both beautiful, and loved by their father. His attitude to his manuscript was typically self-deprecating — “. . . though he was not altogether pleased with it he sent it to a publisher. To his surprise the study was accepted and scheduled for publication in the fall of 1925.” “His expectations for his first book had been both cautious and modest, and they had been appropriate; one reviewer called it ‘pedestrian’ and another had called it ‘a competent survey’. At first he had been very proud of the book; he had held it in his hands and caressed its plain wrapper and turned its pages. It seemed delicate and alive, like a child. He had reread it in print, mildly surprised that it was neither better nor worse than he had thought it would be. After a while he tired of seeing it; but he never thought of it and his authorship, without a sense of wonder and disbelief at his own temerity and at the responsibility he had assumed.”

In middle age Stoner experiences an all-consuming love affair; and starts to write another book. “What he wanted to do in this new book was not yet precisely clear to him; in general, he wished to extend himself beyond his first study, in both time and scope. . . . The possibilities he could see so exhilarated him that he could not keep still.” In an intense passage he and Katherine remain almost secluded all summer in her apartment, writing and making love. Each is writing their own book. “For hours at a time she would sit at the tiny desk against the wall, her head bent down in intense concentration over books and papers, her slender pale neck curving and flowing out of the dark blue robe she habitually wore; Stoner sprawled in the chair or lay on the bed in like concentration.” “Then they would make love, and lie quietly for a while, and return to their studies, as if their love and learning were one process.” “‘Lust and learning,’ Katherine once said. ‘That’s really all there is, isn’t it?'”

Departmental politics take his love and most of his meaningful teaching from him. He abandons the second book. Later, reading Katherine’s book “he marveled at how truly he could see her even now. Suddenly it was as if she were in the next room, and he had only moments before left her; his hands tingled, as if they had touched her.”

Cancer takes him. On his deathbed he dizzily gropes for his one book. “It was his own book he sought, and when the hand held it he smiled at the familiar red cover that had for a long time been faded and scuffed.”

“It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there.

“He opened the book; and as he did so it became not his own. He let his fingers riffle through the pages and felt a tingling, as if those pages were alive. The tingling came through his fingers and coursed through his flesh and bone; he was minutely aware of it, and he waited until it contained him, until the old excitement that was like terror fixed him where he lay. The sunlight, passing his window, shone upon the page, and he could not see what was written there.

“The fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across the still body and fell into the silence of the room.”

___________

John Williams: Stoner (1965) New York Review Books. Williams’ two other great books, Butcher’s Crossing (1960) and Augustus (1972), have also been reissued by New York Review Books. If you have not read these, please do so.