A reader’s hesitation … join the Trollopians, or push on alone? (Part 1)

Opinion January 21, 2011 0 Comments

by HUGH GILMORE
What to read, what to read? There are so many wonderful books in the world, and they keep piling up, unread and clamoring for our attention. I am always tempted as January approaches to declare some rules that will guide my reading choices for the coming year.

Maybe, I think, I’ll just read neglected classics – most of Dickens, for example. I don’t think I’ve ever read “Anna Karenina.” I know I haven’t read “The Brothers Karamazov.” And other than “Barchester Towers,” (as a school assignment) I have no idea what all the “Trollopians” (fans of Anthony Trollope) are fussing about. Maybe I should find out. (But what if they’re boring? the little voice within whispers.)

So then I think, maybe instead of filling the gaps in my knowledge of literature, I should reread books I quite definitely enjoyed in the past. I’ve kept reading lists since college. I could come up with quite a good list. Even the act of composing it would be enjoyable.

(I could even arrange to have the list scrolled and put in my hand as I lie in state in my coffin someday. You know, “That’s his book list. Our Hugh – always had his nose in a book. Right up until the bus flattened him, sniff sniff. Great list, though.”)

But the road not taken always beckons me. As dense as I am, I’m sure I got something out of all those books I read. Enough to say that my hunger to hear new voices drives me forward. But what to read? What to read?

For this year I also considered reading all the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction, perhaps sprinkling in a few from the biography and history winners. From 1918 to the present. Not a bad idea, but then, why not do National Book Award winners? I’ll bet I’d like most of them. Or gee, why not be more international? I should read at least one book – ideally the seminal book – written by every Nobel Prize for Literature winner.

Then I think, wait a minute – instead of reading only books awarded a prize by a committee, maybe I should rescue some unjustly neglected writers. There are hundreds, thousands I’m sure, of wonderful books that were published only to fade into obscurity. I’d do the authorial equivalent of puppy rescuing.

I went to Google and tapped “unjustly neglected books.” I got 185,000 hits. The choice problem again. And nothing’s more tedious than getting buttonholed by someone with an agenda, as many of the claimants seemed to be. Somewhere in that pile of manure there must be a magic mushroom or two, but I passed on the effort.

But just by luck I found a link that led to a list of someone’s (I can’t remember whose) “Ten Best Novels of 2010.” It mentioned “A Novel Bookstore,” by Laurence Cossè. The plot centered about the efforts of two literature lovers to open a bookstore in Paris that sold only “good” literature. Of course, being French, they debate openly and thoroughly all the issues related to that controversial question, “Just what is a ‘good’ book?”

Having owned a bookstore myself, and still being an antiquarian book seller, I felt both obliged by and attracted to the idea, so I ordered the book from the Free Library. It arrived just before Christmas and became the last book I read in 2010.

I enjoyed it enormously, despite its occasional tediousness, and weak plotting. The central idea of this book – thousands of people drawn to a bookstore because it offers a bulwark against the mind pollution spewed by mainstream publishers – enthralled me. I was reminded of all those wonderful scenes in “Fahrenheit 451” where booklovers secretly congregated to celebrate and keep alive the miracle of great literature. I was so caught up by his feeling I wanted to read all the books discussed in this novel and deemed worthy of being sold in the novel’s ideal bookstore.

That was nearly what I decided to do for 2011, but I held back. I wasn’t sure I could trust the author’s taste. She, Laurence Cossé, seemed just a bit too inclusive of any book with “attitude” and I wasn’t sure I would personally enjoy reading them, even if I acknowledged that they were “good” books.

Then I noticed that “A Novel Bookstore” was published by Europa Editions, a publisher that had issued four other novels I’d enjoyed last year. (“Old Filth” by Jane Gardem; “Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio” by Amara Lakhous; “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery, and “The Tokyo Fiancée” by Amelie Nothomb). All quite unique and enjoyable. Moreover, this house’s books are sleek and physically elegant. And their settings quite sophisticated and international. They’re so open-minded they even publish Americans!

Europa Editions was founded in 2005 by Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, the owner/publishers of Edizioni E/O, based in Rome and one of Europe’s most prestigious publishing houses. They publish literary fiction, high-end mysteries, illustrated children’s fiction, memoirs, and narrative non-fiction. They currently publish 90 authors and this May will publish their 100th title. About two-thirds of their titles have been translated from another language into English.

Yes, why not? It was time I expanded my taste beyond the Yahoo American fiction I’ve been reading for years. So, yes, that was it. I would try to read all, and only, books published by Europa Editions. Pumped up, excited, ready to face the new year, I set out to stock up on Europa Editions titles.

Almost at once, I ran into the problems that nowadays beset anyone who decides to get off the beaten track.

To be continued …

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