Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Part II: Some Nonfiction Titles We’d Like to See Back in Print

By Eric Banks

Since 2009 the NBCC has sponsored NBCC Reads, a set of surveys drawing on the bookish expertise of our membership as well as former winners and finalists. This fall our subject was out-of-print books. We asked:

Which work of fiction or nonfiction would you most like to see republished?

The question elicited a large number of responses (and for many, a large number of books nominated for republishing), the names of writers whose work more generally should be republished, as well as a few considerations of how changes in the industry might change the fortunes of long out-of-print titles. Last week we published the responses we received for fiction titles; here is a summary of the calls we got for nonfiction, memoir, children's books, and works of criticism. Click here to read some of the longer responses. We’ll be publishing more individual responses as “Long Tail” entries on the blog in the days to come, and we hope to sponsor related panels from coast to coast. (Let us know if you'd like to set one up in your community.)

As was the case with our compilation of fiction titles that deserve a second life, our respondents named a range of nonfiction books that sometimes surprisingly had gone out of print. Chris Bersanti nominated Evidenceby Luc Sante, while Dylan Hicks wrote into urge a reprint of Phillip Lopate's Bachelorhood: “a characteristically great, or near great (Lopate doesn't pretend to greatness), collection of essays and poems, not quite a strong as Portrait of My Body or Against Joie de Vivre, but close.” Kirby Gannchose Dostoevsky's working notebooks for the major novels (“The University of Chicago pressed published these in the late sixties but I don't think they've reappeared since then.”). Michael Gorra nominated Eleanor Clark’s evocative Rome and a Villa, while Carl Rollyson wrote, “There ought to be a new edition of Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason. It is astounding that this great book is out of print. It is a classic book not merely about treason but about what it means to be a citizen in a modern democracy.” Andrew Blauner wrote in favor of Red Love by David Evanier, while Geri Spieler named Frederick Dutton’s Changing Sources of Power.

Some of our nominees were in favor of works of criticism or definitive nonfiction surveys. The 2008 NBCC winner in Criticism, Alex Ross, wrote, “I would vote for Wilfrid Mellers's book Music in a New Found Land, a fiercely observant, passionately written survey of American music from folk song to notated classical music and on to classic and modern jazz. It's one of the great music books of the twentieth century.” Laurie Garrett, a nonfiction finalist in 2000 for her book Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health, wrote in favor of Paul De Kruif’s 1926 Microbe Hunters. And Mitzi Brunsdale recommended Walter Jackson Bate’s Criticism: The Major Texts. “The texts themselves of course are invaluable, but Bate’s introductory material is magisterial. It should be required reading and re-reading for every English major, every book critic, every book lover in the country.

Several of our respondents named children’s books. In addition to several other titles, including Romancing, Jeremy Treglown’s “excellent biography” of Graham Greene, Carmela Ciuraru nominated any of the Freddy the Pig children’s books (by Walter R. Brooks), “which Overlook Press brought back into print about eight years ago—yet some of the titles seem to have fallen out of print yet again!” Dawn Rennert recommended bringing back into print Red Light, Green Light, by Margaret Wise Brown, and A Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton. Bob Frost wrote, “I would like to see Silver for General Washington back in print. This children's historical novel by Enid LaMonte Meadowcroft was first published in the 1940s and was widely used through the '60s and '70s. At some point it fell out of favor with educators (I'm not 100 percent sure why) and today it's out of print. It's a vivid evocation of the Valley Forge Winter of 1777-78 during the American Revolutionary War, a dramatic tale of two boys engaged in an exciting adventure, and a good history lesson. Meadowcroft (1898–1966) apparently disliked history as a young student, finding it dry and boring, and tried in her many books to give the subject juice. She died on the job––she contracted hepatitis while on a research trip to Greece for a book about the ancient world and was not able to recover. Her books live on––but just barely.” Cynthia Ozick, who won the 2000 award in Criticism for her Quarrel & Quandary, named a book “ostensibly for children but actually a recounting of various desolutions,” Mary Lamb’s Mrs. Leicester’s School, which she recently wrote about in the Wall Street Journal: “I have no idea of its publishing history, or whether it already exists in a reprint edition. It is certainly in the public domain, and my own worn copy has been in my possession since the third grade. It deserves to be rescued from its two-hundred-year eclipse; but I would not recommend it for children.”

A couple of other nominations are quietly but technically still (or back) in print. C. M. Mayo noted Sophy Burnham's “audacious and deliciously literary work of art world sociology, The Art Crowd. It isn’t technically out of print—“though a New York Times best-seller, it did not come out in paperback until recently, via the Authors Guild's back-in-print program.” Mayo writes, “if the publishing ‘business’ is crazy, more so the art business! Burnham's book provides important insight into the deep humanity of why that is.” Another that deserves “an encore” even if it’s still technically in print is Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, about which Reamy Jansen wrote: “I spent much of my freshman year at college reading my way out of the suburbs of Long Island: Rimbaud, Pinter, Noh Plays, Dostoevsky. They still live, but A Walker in the City deserves an encore. This volume helped make the city walker I've become.” Gregory Miller nominated Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a. Boris Karloff, by Cynthia Lindsay, “a delightfully intimate and beautifully illustrated portrait of one of Hollywood's good guys. I read it as a child but somehow lost track of it again until a recent rainy day. I promptly spent a delightful afternoon with it.” Susan Stewart, who received the 2003 NBCC award in Poetry, wrote about Australian poet Robert Gray's beautiful and strange 2008 memoir of his parents' life and his own, The Land I Came Through Last, available only in Australia. “Sentence by sentence, episode by episode, it is a bildungsroman of his imagination in a culture of eccentrics, invalids, religious fanatics, punsters, and misfits in New South Wales. There are no minor characters and Gray's prose is pure poetry.”

In addition to recommending Jean Stafford’s A Mother in History (“a profile of Lee Harvey Oswald’s mom—short and good”) Michael Miller wrote to us about The Diary of James Schuyler, “which maybe hasn't been oop long enough to qualify as a lost classic, but it’s a favorite, and at this point fairly hard to find. He's cranky, gossipy, sad, and sometimes (if you read the timeline at the end of the book) losing his mind. Which is to say that the book has tons of personality. But perhaps more than any other NYS poet, he approaches all his intensity with a bizarre and seemingly natural ease. (I think of the line in ‘Hymn to Life’: ‘Oh, it's not so bad.’). Alex Sharp recommended John Stevens’s The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, which he called inspirational. ”Tendai monks run for 1,000 days in a seven-years time frame, wearing flimsy sandals and monk robes. They run through the mountains, eating meager fare and chanting prayers. Stevens is one of the monks who lived to tell the story; monks who cannot complete the task disembowel themselves. The story of these ‘ghost runners’ is the best book to give a runner as a gift.  And board member Karen Long wrote, “My first choice is Gray is the Color of Hope by the poet Irina Ratushinskaya. She called it “a prison memoir I will be thinking about for the rest of my life.”

Finally, here’s what Katherine A. Powers had to say: “I can think of a number of books I'd like to see back in print, but I shall mention the one that I have probably given away the most times: Don't Tread on Me: The Selected Letters of S.J. Perelman, edited by Prudence Crowther. The letters range from 1928, the year before he got married (‘I wanted to see you before I left,’ he wrote to Edmund Wilson in 1929, ‘but my feet were awash in lilies of the valley and my head bowed down with tons of bridle net. In a word I was being married.’) to 1979, when he died. They are not all funny, but many of them are supremely so. (‘Here we are cached for the time being in the Hollywood Knickerbocker, where every prospect pleases and only price is vile. It is the kind of place that …ladies with iron-gray permanents flock to; they're all sitting on a glassed-in porch downstairs listening to their veins crackling like ice in a Maine pond. Every so often a Cadillac schlurrs up to the door and a chauffeur lifts out somebody's mother and gives her the fireman's carry on a wicker chair. After she gets her breath, she starts bragging about how much money her son makes a year.’) The letters display Perelman's virtuosity in skewed idiom, American slang, and rat-ta-tat-tat pacing. They include devastating portraits of the people he knew and the places he visited and lived–his farm in Pennsylvania, Hollywood, London, Asian countries, and the New York to which he returned in 1972 after an unsuccessful venture in living in London. ‘Had you been lounging at the corner of Second Avenue and 73rd Street this morning,’ he wrote to a friend in 1972, ‘you would have rubbed your eyes incredulously. Could this schlep in khaki pants, his wrinkled shirt opened at the throat and his feet in scuffed bluchers, be the fashion plate who only three months ago might have been observed in Onslow Square, out Brummeling the Beau?’