Category Archives: books (considered as such)

caveat emptor

 

 

I have learned to abhor so called print on demand booksellers.

They are sort of like cockroaches. If you are looking for a book online — from Amazon.com, or a bookstore/bookseller with a web page — and, say, you enter a search term such as “Theodore Dreiser” or “Sister Carrie,” you will get far more hits than you need or want.

Many of them are for on demand publishers. For instance:

Lightning Source Inc.

Forgotten Books

Trieste Publishing

Andesite Press

I was recently fooled, as it were, by seeing the name Trieste Publishing for a bookseller. I ordered a hard to find book of essays by William Hazlitt from them.

Trieste Publishing sounded like a bona fide publishing house, not an on demand publisher.

The book arrived in no time. It was what in booksellers’ parlance is termed an ex-libris copy, an ugly photocopied book from a public library with marks and stamps on it.

Some time ago, I ordered the lengthy novel by David Graham Phillips Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. It was out of print. It was sold by Indypublish.Com. It came in two volumes with a plain dark blue cover. There were no words on the cover.

The title page simply read Susan Lenox Her Rise and Fall.

They couldn’t even get that right. The novel’s title is actually Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. If you read the novel, you will see that the difference in titles makes a big difference.

 

 

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Here are some more ludicrous examples.

 

The cover of Theodore Dreiser’s novel The “Genius,” published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

 

book cover, The 'Genius' (Create Space).jpg

 

I was astonished to see the cover of this edition. How could they have a portrait of Albert Einstein on the cover? Dreiser’s novel was based loosely on the life of Greenwich Village artist Everett Shinn, who in no way resembled Einstein appearance wise, and of course was from a totally different world, so to speak. The “publishers” did not bother to ascertain what the novel is about.

 

The cover of Theodore Dreiser’s novel The Financier (which is based on the life of the American financier Charles Tyson Yerkes), sold by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

 

book cover, 'The Financier' (Create Space).jpg

 

 

The financier, Yerkes, died in 1905. He was active in the late nineteenth century in places such as Chicago. Dreiser knew of him. In the CreateSpace cover illustration, he is dressed in garb appropriate for Benjamin Franklin.

 

 

The cover of an edition of Theodore Dreiser’s Plays of the Natural and Supernatural, sold by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

 

 

book cover, 'Plays of the Natural and Supernatural' (Create Space)

 

 

The cover of an edition of Theodore Dreiser’s play The Hand of the Potter, sold by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

 

 

book cover, 'The Hand of the Potter' (Create Space).jpg

 

 

 

The illustrations look like they could have been done by Bruegel or an Italian Renaissance painter.

 

 

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It’s disturbing, to me, to see books being marketed by firms that have entirely no knowledge of books or their content. A related problem which concerns me is that such sellers clutter up the online market for books, so that one can’t find which editions are in print that are worth purchasing.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

Montaigne on books

 

“… I take pleasure from the fact that I can enjoy [books] when it pleases me to do so; my soul is satisfied merely with possession. I never travel without books, neither in peace nor in war.  Sometimes whole days go by, even months, without my looking at them. But it might be at any moment now, or tomorrow; or whenever the mood takes me. . . . Books are, I find, the best provisions a man can take with him on life’s journey.” — Michel de Montaigne

 

 

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Exactly my sentiments!

Except ….

I have learned from experience not to take books with me on actual trips. (Note Montaigne’s reference to “life’s journey,” which is something entirely different.) Extra baggage. And, I am in such an excited state mentally when traveling that I never read them (during a trip).

I do return lugging hard to find books (e.g., Juan Ramón Jiménez in Spain), increasing by a large measure the weight of my baggage.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  August 2017

 

footnotes

 

 

 

I have been a reader all my life and take great pleasure in it.

I am not an academic, yet I like to challenge myself by reading books on all sorts of topics. As well as trying to read the classics, I don’t shy away from reading scholarly tomes.

For example, being a lover of Walt Whitman, and always intending to read more of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I have begun reading a book by a well known English professor which discusses the influence the two had on one another.

I desire to read books in their traditional printed form, not on line. I love having the book in my hands and turning the pages. I appreciate the physical appearance of books and enjoy owing them. I tend to prefer hardbacks over paperbacks. This is especially true of hefty volumes. I find the pages easier to turn.

I have a pet peeve. It involves footnotes. Sometimes, they are boring and not essential from the reader’s point of view. But, often – usually — they are worth at least checking, and quite often, indeed, they contain valuable information. In the case of the work of some scholars, the footnotes can often be as informative as the main body of the text itself. This is true, for example, of the works of the Samuel Johnson scholar Thomas M. Curley, whose works should be better known (but never will be).

So, I ask, why are footnotes buried at the back of the book? Why do publishing practices require or mandate this?

I write scholarly essays for a separate web site of mine which is devoted to the writer Theodore Dreiser. I compose the essays using Microsoft Word. I try to document my findings using footnotes, to make what I have discovered through research verifiable and to give my articles credibility among scholars. Microsoft Word permits one to insert a footnote in a document wherever one desires. The footnote is inserted at the bottom of the page automatically, and the layout is adjusted automatically to allow space at the bottom of the page for the footnotes. One also has the option of creating an endnote, if so desired, in which case the citations appear sequentially at the end of the main body of the document.

I recall writing term papers as a college student in the 1960’s. I used a manual portable typewriter, a Royal typewriter with a Harvard College sticker on it that my older brother had bequeathed to me. Being a procrastinator, it seemed that I was always pulling “all nighters” to write the paper the night before it was due. I would have books spread out before me from which I would be cadging information for footnotes. (I almost always — by the way — composed my papers at the typewriter in a single draft, with no revisions.)

Allowing for footnotes in those days was a slight problem. One had to anticipate how many footnotes there would be at the bottom of the page, then make a pencil mark about a half an inch from the bottom of the page to allow space for each footnote. When one got to the pencil mark, one stopped typing the main text and typed in the footnote.

Can someone explain to me, if the technology is available to any student writing a term paper on his or her computer using standard word processing software — the technology to insert footnotes at the BOTTOM of EACH page, with the word processing program automatically making adjustments to allow enough space — why can’t publishing firms place footnotes at the bottom of each page instead of at the end of the book? It would save so much vexing flipping back and forth to find and read the citation. In the old days, footnotes were always at the bottom of each page in printed books. Why, in heaven’s name, do publishers insist on the supposedly “modern” way of doing it?

A friend of mine from the past who was a homegrown philosopher used to say to me, “Science marches backwards.” So do many other areas of modern life, big and small.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

      March 2017

 

 

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Addendum: I had a discussion the other day about the subject of this post — namely, footnotes — with someone whose opinions I respect. He suggested to me that the reason that footnotes get buried in, relegated to, the back of the book is because publishers and authors fear that most people don’t care to read them and that, if they were placed at the bottom of the page to which they refer, many readers would find them to be a distraction.

This is undoubtedly true. True as an observation about publishing practices, that is. But, I would say, flat out wrong.

A similar point was made to me once by an eminent scholar whom I became acquainted with when I was employed at Columbia University. His books were a pleasure to read on account both of the clarity of expression and the prodigious original research that underlay them. The footnotes were copious and lengthy and demonstrated considerable industry and erudition.

In discussing a recently published book of his with the author, whom I told that I admired it, his footnotes came up. He told me he had placed them at the end because, that way, people who didn’t want to read them could ignore them.

In retrospect, I thoroughly disagree with my acquaintance’s position on this. If the reader isn’t interested, he or she can go on to the next page and ignore the footnotes.

Roger W. Smith, “‘dirty’ books”

 

 

 

There was a cheap mass market paperback book on the living room bookshelf in our house in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1950’s – I would guess it was my mother’s because she was the parent with literary tastes: a collection of short stories by Erskine Caldwell, a Southern writer who wrote about plain, simple people. He had a very simple, down to earth style.

I read one of the stories, “A Swell Looking Girl,” when I was a preadolescent. It astounded me because of its frank content, telling an unvarnished story that – while the language was not crude – seemed to have shocking implications. I did not, however, view it as a bad piece of fiction. Even at that age, I had fairly good taste.

“A Swell Looking Girl” is a very simple story about a young man in some town or other in the South who has just gotten married. He is very proud of his young bride and wants to show her off to his male neighbors. So he has her come out on the porch and then (eventually) lifts up her dress. She is nude underneath and completely exposed. The men all say “that sure is some swell looking girl” and gradually leave. That’s the whole story.

The story seemed remarkable to me at that age because of the thought of complete female nudity. It was kind of understated the way it was written, but very daring.

Another book on my parents’ bookshelf which I became aware of at a later age was James Joyce’s Ulysses. I was intrigued by it without reading it (which would have been quite difficult for me then; it still is now). I asked my mother and father about it once at the dinner table. I doubt they had read much of it, but they did explain to me the use by Joyce of stream of consciousness. This intrigued and interested me very much.

Later, when I was in high school, my church youth group, Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), had a midwinter conference at Proctor Academy in Andover, New Hampshire in which one of the workshops, which I attended, was on sexuality. In the flyer for the conference, in the place where there would be a description of the workshop, instead of a description of the workshop per se, it simply quoted the famous concluding words of Ulysses:

… I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

This caused quite a stir. Some adults were alarmed. They already thought that these LRY conferences, with adolescents staying together away from home at a conference site with little or no supervision, were a de facto invitation to licentiousness.

My reaction to the Ulysses quote in the flyer was that this was powerful writing of a high order. It did not arouse prurient feelings in me.

Another erotic book that I became slightly acquainted with at around the same time (actually a bit later) was Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I knew of the book but hadn’t read it until my senior year in high school. That year I attended an LRY conference in some town in Massachusetts and was staying over the weekend in someone’s house. There was a paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in my room and, during downtime on a Sunday morning, I read some of it.

I grew to like and admire D. H. Lawrence; yet, I like several of his other novels (particularly The Rainbow and Sons and Lovers) a lot more than Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Nevertheless, when I first read it (parts of it, the “good parts”), I was favorably impressed. It was my first exposure to Lawrence. And, the sexual language and sexual descriptions were new to me. It gave me a desire for sex and got me thinking about it in more explicit terms. Yet, I knew it was not just a “dirty” book.

In my late high school years, I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn in a recently published Grove Press paperback with a bright red cover, which I found in my father’s bedroom — the obscenity ban had just been lifted by the courts. I had never heard of Miller.

At first, I noticed the sexy parts – there were lots of them. The “good parts” were explicit, more so than other naughty books that I had hitherto peeked at. Besides being erotic, they were well written, amusing, and fun.

Soon — very quickly — I got caught up in the whole book and in Miller’s narrative style and I was no longer interested in the sexy parts alone. And, I found that I enjoyed the sex scenes not only for their explicit erotic content, but also for the humor and the good, zesty writing.

Tropic of Capricorn is one of my favorite books and I think it deserves the status of an American literary classic.

While in college, I also read Miller’s Sexus and Plexus and, later, books such as Quiet Days in Clichy and The World of Sex. I enjoyed them all and came to have admiration for Miller as a writer.

My father’s book collection included Memoirs of Hecate County, a novel by the famous literary critic Edmund Wilson. The book was banned in the US until 1959. I read one graphic sex scene in my father’s copy. I didn’t like it. It was too clinical, like an automaton detached from the protagonist’s persona is engaging in sexual intercourse. I find aspects of Wilson’s personality unappealing and don’t particularly care for his writing.

Peyton Place (1956) was a book that was around in those days. It was a phenomenal best seller and was published in a paperback with a black cover that seemed to promise, here is a BAD book. We didn’t have a copy in our house, but a lot of people did. There were a few naughty scenes, but I am sure the book would seem tame now.

The Carpetbaggers (1961) was a bestseller by Harold Robbins. We didn’t have a copy at home, but several kids I knew in high school called my attention to it. I think that it was one particular scene that caused most of the excitement. A girl is at the top of the stairs in a house, naked; she spills orange soda on herself and carries on in a provocative fashion. It was titillating for an adolescent, but I had no interest in reading the book.

Harold Robbins was a trashy writer who sold out. But, in my adult years, I did read an early novel of his, A Stone for Danny Fisher (1952), written when he still had some integrity as a striving writer. I was able to purchase a rare copy. Surprisingly, it was a pretty good book, a piece of realism about a young Jewish man who struggles to make his way during the Depression.

Another book that I discovered on what used to be the erotic books table in bookstores in the sixties – when I was in my young twenties — was My Life and Loves by Frank Harris. He was a successful editor in New York who had countless sexual conquests. Recently, I saw a handsome paperback reissue of the book on one of the bargain tables at the Strand Bookstore in New York and examined the book again. The book is a frank autobiography that was privately published by the author during the 1920’s and was published thereafter by the Obelisk Press in Paris (Henry Miller’s first publisher) in 1931. It is incredibly explicit and details one sexual encounter after another, with Harris portrayed as being remarkably potent and the women portrayed as ravenous for sex.

I can’t quite account for the fact that I found it, as I did at the later date, to be boring and tedious. After a few pages, you feel compelled to put it down. It’s like the case with pornography. The detail quickly becomes repetitive and mind-numbing.

George Orwbook I should mention, although no one nowadays would categorize it as a “dirty” book. When I was in high school in the early 1960’s, however, things were different.

Nineteen Eighty-Four can hold its own not just as a polemic, so to speak, but also as a literary work. It took me several readings to appreciate this. After several readings, I grew to appreciate what I consider to be the brilliant satire more fully. I think that Nineteen Eighty-Four bears comparison to an even greater work, Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Both works are brilliant pieces of satire.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is not pornographic. But, there are a couple of sex scenes involving the protagonist, Winston Smith, and Julia, “the girl from the fiction department.” The scene (and the line) that I remember best from reading the novel as an adolescent – it seemed to be what all my fellow teenagers noticed — was the scene when they first make love and Winston “felt at the zipper of her overalls.”

Because the book contained two sex scenes, it was banned in our high school (Canton High School in Canton, Massachusetts). I did read it, however, as part of Dr. Erwin Gaines’s reading group. Dr. Gaines was a high ranking librarian in Boston who had instituted an extra-curricular reading group for high school students. We would meet at his home every two weeks or so during the school year to discuss books; it was very enjoyable and stimulating. I am glad that I got to read Nineteen Eighty-Four then and didn’t have to wait until later.

 

— Roger W. Smith

      July 2016