In “The Pleasure of Reading,” Antonia Fraser has brought together essays by “43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books That Inspired Them.” Each mini-memoir is further supplemented by an annotated list of that author’s 10 favorite books. Do I need to say that the resulting anthology, now expanded from the original British edition of 1992, makes for nearly irresistible reading? Odds are, some of your favorite modern writers — many alas, now dead — will be found here, talking excitedly about the books they love most.
“The most perfect example of narrative prose, swift, witty, informative and dramatic,” writes playwright Simon Gray, “is the first chapter of ‘Mansfield Park,’ although every first chapter in Jane Austen is marked by the unmistakable confidence of the writer who knows she has a story to tell, and knows she knows exactly how to tell it.” Ruth Rendell’s favorite Austen is also “Mansfield Park,” which she calls “the fun-less one, the profoundest, the most didactic, but nevertheless the greatest.” Still, it isn’t the suspense novelist’s favorite book. For many years, that was Samuel Butler’s “The Way of All Flesh,” until it was superseded by Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier”: “I reread it every year. . . . Its characters live in my mind’s eye as if moving in some ritual dance, precise, exquisite, finely balanced. With the poor narrator I suffer afresh each time.”
Biographer Philip Ziegler tells us that he has reread Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” at least 20 times, and that “by its style and elegance no biography has given me greater delight than David Cecil’s ‘The Young Melbourne.’ ” Travel writer Jan Morris declares that “ ‘Kim’ would have made Rudyard Kipling immortal if he had written nothing else.” Adventurer and memoirist Patrick Leigh-Fermor seconds that view: He returns to Kipling’s novel “about every two years, the habit is too old to break.” Norman Douglas’s “Old Calabria” is another of Leigh-Fermor’s favorites, largely because of “a particular style and cast of mind . . . that one can’t do without.” Novelist Jeanette Winterson confesses that if she could carry only one book to that fabled deserted island, it would be T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” adding “there is nothing that it does not say.”
Beyond its obvious delightfulness, there’s one further reason to buy a copy of “The Pleasure of Reading”: Its sales assist the British “Give a Book” charity — www.giveabook.org.uk — which promotes reading among disadvantaged children, prisoners and other groups.
Complementing Fraser’s essay collection, “Rare Books Uncovered” focuses on the gentle madness of book collecting, especially the serendipitous discovery of valuable works in unexpected places. Pretty much all the dealers and scouts interviewed by Rebecca Rego Barry, editor of the magazine Fine Books & Collections, agree with the mantra coined by author-bookseller Larry McMurtry in his novel “Cadillac Jack”: “Anything can be anywhere.”
Barry opens with a brief portrait of the near-legendary Martin Stone, now living in Paris and said to be the greatest book scout of our time. Stone eschews the Internet and claims to have bought almost nothing from eBay. Mostly, he visits flea markets, estate sales, neighborhood bookstores, junk shops — any place there might be interesting material. “I look,” he says simply, emphasizing that the hunt itself “is the great pleasure.” But to look effectively, you must first acquire the knowledge to recognize a treasure when you run across one.
Barry includes tales of one astonishing find after another — a 500-year-old “Nuremberg Chronicle” that surfaced in Utah, a Jack Kerouac bibliography annotated by Kerouac himself, a copy of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” inscribed to Lord Byron and even, so its owners argue, Shakespeare’s own 16th-century dictionary. David Anthem, a part-time bookseller, snagged a first edition in dust jacket of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” for only a few dollars from a Philadelphia street vendor. It’s worth at least $25,000.
Barry keeps her tales lively, yet they are, perhaps unavoidably, somewhat similar: An unlikely book turns up in an unlikely place, or an unfamiliar item, picked up on a whim, is found to be a pearl beyond price. These days, though, it seems that many of the people she interviewed now poke around online more often that they prowl through dark cellars and cavernous warehouses.
Roberto Calasso, the learned author of “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” and “Ka,” is also the publisher of Italy’s distinguished Adelphi Editions. In “The Art of the Publisher,” he reflects on what the book business means to him.
“Along with roulette and cocottes, founding a publishing house has always been one of the most effective ways for a young man of noble birth to fritter away a fortune,” he begins. In fact, Adelphi has been successful in large part because of the overriding vision of its founders. From the start, Roberto Bazlen, Luciano Foa and Calasso determined that they would publish “singular” books, those in which “something has happened to the author and has been put into writing,” regardless of genre. Thus the Italian company’s initial offerings featured artist Alfred Kubin’s only fantasy novel, “The Other Side”; Edwardian critic Edmund Gosse’s memoir of his fundamentalist upbringing, “Father and Son”; and Christopher Burney’s stunning book about total isolation, “Solitary Confinement.” Later, Adelphi would particularly champion European authors such as Joseph Roth, Robert Walser and Thomas Bernhard.
Calasso repeatedly emphasizes the importance of what he calls “form,” something close to the notion of “brand”: Each Adelphi title not only represents “knowledge without which our lives would simply be poorer,” it also functions as a chapter in the single composite work made up of all the firm’s books. To achieve such unity of vision, a publisher must be highly selective in what he or she accepts. In his own case, Calasso reads everything he publishes and writes each book’s flap copy, now for more than 1,000 titles.
Throughout Calasso’s essays and lectures, one discovers closely thought-out observations about the importance of cover design, the effects of digital technology and the achievements of major 20th-century publishers such as Giulio Einaudi, Peter Suhrkamp and Roger Straus. In the long run, Calasso contends, quality always triumphs. As a model for all publishers, he points to Aldus Manutius, who in the Renaissance invented the pocket-sized volume — ancestor of the paperback — and also produced the strange, illustrated romance called “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (“The Strife of Love in a Dream”) — which “the vast majority of bibliophiles regard as the most beautiful book ever printed.”
Fraser, Barry and Calasso’s miscellanies all belong to that sometimes cutesy, but usually captivating genre, “books about books.” In this case, any of the three would make a welcome gift for a passionate reader or collector.
Dirda is a regular book reviewer for Style and the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
Edited by Antonia Fraser
Bloomsbury. 352 pp. Paperback; $18
By Rebecca Rego Barry
Voyageur Press. 248 pp. $25
By Roberto Calasso
Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon
Farrar Straus Giroux. 159 pp. $23