Least Square Man

RECENTLY, Random House published Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie. It tells the story of Basie's life from his childhood in Red Bank, New Jersey, through his apprenticeship in New York City and his years in Kansas City to his triumph with his own orchestra. The book is an "as-told-to," and Basie's reminiscences were lovingly shaped over a seven-year period by a writer named Albert Murray.

Good Morning Blues is Murray's sixth book, all produced since he retired from the Air Force as a major in the 1960s. A graduate (as is his friend Ralph Ellison) of Tuskegee Institute, Murray has been a teacher as well, and like Ellison, he lives in Harlem.

Murray's first book, The Omni-Americans, published in 1970, is a series of essays on cultural topics and includes attacks on a variety of big names such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and William Styron, who he argues hold derogatory (because simplistic) views of American blacks. His second book, South to a Very Old Place, which was nominated for a National Book Award and is to my mind his masterpiece, tells of a trip back to his boyhood home in Alabama. The book also has a marvelous evocation of Murray's college days at Tuskegee.

Good Morning Blues is not Murray's first foray into the subject of music. In his third book, The Hero and the Blues, Murray argued that the music and words of the blues crystallize the main concerns of modern world literature and that the jazz idiom presents an excellent model for thinking about writing.

Stompin' the Blues, published in 1976 by McGraw-Hill and now available in a Vintage paperback, is a history (and philosophy) of blues music. It won the Deems Taylor Award as best music book of the year from the American Society of Composers and Publishers.

Murray has even written fiction -- Train Whistle Guitar, which came out in 1974. A beautifully written, jazz-soaked riff on his childhood in the Alabama town of Bay Minette, to which he gives the fictional name Gasoline Point, it is in the great American (and Southern) tradition of writing about childhood. The innocent youthful protagonist learns lessons of wisdom from a colorful cast of characters who include a 12-string guitar player called Luzana Cholly and a great piano player named Stagolee Dupas. The book won the Lillian Smith Award of the Southern Regional Council.

Include the Basie volume, and this is an astonishing output over 15 years for someone who did not produce his first book until he was 54 years old. And apparently, there is more to come. In a recent telephone interview, Murray told me that he has finished a sequel to Train Whistle Guitar, to be called The Spyglass Tree, which takes his boy Scooter through his college years, and that he intends to make it a trilogy of novels.

Even more impressive than the number of titles is the high quality of Murray's books. There's not a half-baked idea in any of them, and his rich and rhythmic prose is always a joy to read.

On the jacket of one of his books, there is a comment on Murray by Duke Ellington that strikes me, considering the source, as one of the greatest compliments ever issued. "Albert Murray," said the Duke, "is the least square man I ever met." That's as good as a Nobel Prize anytime. Penguins in New Feathers

AMIDST ALL THE visual hubbub of the modern bookstore, there is usually an oasis of calm that draws me to it. Partly it is the tasteful binding of the books that pulls me, partly my knowledge that I will find something worthwhile there. It is the display rack for Penguin Books.

Now comes word that Penguin will be changing the looks of its books starting this month. Worry not, though -- the revised look seems as handsome as the old. The new series of Penguin Classics will combine what were three separate lines -- the Penguin English Library, the Penguin American Library, and the old (though not outmoded) Penguin Classics, which include translations from more than 20 foreign languages. In the revised look, all these volumes will have color reproductions of artworks on their covers and will have black spines with white lettering. At the top of the spine, there will be four color codes: British and American literature will be indicated by a little red stripe, European literature by yellow, Greek and Latin literature by purple and oriental by green.

There will also be two sizes of paperbacks: one to fit in the racks, and a slightly larger version for other works so they will stand out on the shelves. Twenty-eight volumes will appear this month in the revised format. They include The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Other Writings, with an introduction by Kenneth Silverman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his recent biography of Cotton Mather; The Essays of Francis Bacon; Fear and Trembling, by Kierkegaard, Principles of Political Economy, by John Stuart Mill and Up From Slavery, by Booker T. Washington, with an introduction by another Pulitzer-winner, Louis T. Harlan of the University of Maryland.

Here's a good trivia question. What was the first Penguin Classic? The answer: The Odyssey, by Homer, translated by E.V. Rieu, issued in 1946. I daresay millions of American high school and college students have gotten their introduction to Homer by reading that book. Speaking of Penguin Books, The Penguin Book of Limericks is appearing later this month in hardback, which gives me the opportunity to quote the following from its pages:

The limerick's callous and crude,

Its morals distressingly lewd;

It's not worth the reading

By persons of breeding --

It's designed for us vulgar and rude.

Promises, promises. These charming limericks are seldom rude, sometime crude, and only occasionally lewd. Gutenberg Redivivus

I AM A FAN of outre publishing projects and one such is a new reproduction of the Gutenberg Bible. You'll recall that the Gutenberg Bible was the first printed book, produced in the city of Mainz between 1452 and 1456. The man responsible was Johann Gensfleisch. His family home had a sign in front bearing the words "Zu Guten Berg" -- To the Good Mountain -- and this became his accepted name. Gutenberg probably printed about 180 Bibles in the Latin translation of St. Jerome, 30 on parchment and 150 on paper. Only 20 complete copies now exist. There are six in the United States, including one at the Library of Congress.

The current reproduction project began in France where a historian and businessman founded a company to promote their idea. The photographic reproduction is taken from the so-called Mazarin Bible in Paris, a Gutenberg Bible that was owned by the statesman Cardinal Mazarin. It is printed on acid-free rag paper and is bound in crush-grained Morocco leather, which is hand-gilded. There are four volumes in the set. Two have the reproduction of the Mazarin Bible. Two others contain a transcription in modern type and an English translation, along with a historical commentary on the Gutenberg Bibles.

The reproduction is distributed in the United States by Midwest Library Service of Bridgeton, Missouri (800-325-8833). These folks will send you a packet of information about the set. If you need to own one, there is a little envelope in the packet so you can place your order. Just enclose a check for $4,500.