What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Some Publishers I Keep a Close Eye On...

I was making my way through the stack of catalogs that made up part of my haul at BEA (BookExpo) back in late May -- also known as "book porn" -- when I realized that there are a handful of publishers whose catalogs were responsible for inflating my "must read" list to an extent that was completely out of whack. I've mentioned one of these here in these pages -- the folks at Europa Books -- but thought it might be amusing to try to round up a list of them. So, in no particular order, here's who they are and why they're so dangerous to my budget and my groaning bookshelves.

Europa Books (to start with the obvious one) publishes high-quality literature that I might otherwise never hear about at all or never be able to find if I did. So far, I'm batting 1000 with their books, and I've decided to participate in their Europa Challenge (more of which in a later post.) Authors include such well-known figures as Muriel Barbery and Jane Gardam, but if you're looking for something completely different in the fiction world, their backlist is a great first stop.

Soho Books: I confess! I am a mystery addict. And Soho publishes some of my favorite authors, including some of the ones who don't automatically warrant a place in the tables at the front of the bookstore, but whose books are often better than some of the ones that you do find occupying prime real estate. I woke up to the pattern slowly -- d'uh -- but any imprint that has introduced me to authors like Qiu Xialong (his post-Soho books haven't been as good, alas), Colin Cotterill, David Downing and Jassy Mackenzie needs to have an eye kept on it. Coming up, I'll be reading some more offerings, like books by Michael Genelin.

Basic Books and PublicAffairs: These two imprints fall under the broader label of the Perseus Books Group, and publish some of the best and most accessible narrative non-fiction about serious subjects. I've just finished reading Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl, a must-read book about sex selection at birth and the impact of these policies on our world, a BasicBooks offering. (Stay tuned for a review in the next 24 hours.) The list of interesting books is endless -- Cambodia today, Lisbon during World War II, the last day of the life of the Soviet Union...

Bloomsbury: I suppose it's technically Bloomsbury Walker, but I don't really care. Besides, I drooled over the logo on the catalog so much that  it's no longer visible. I could actually whimper when reading through their list of upcoming offerings. A new MI5 thriller from Stella Rimington. Stephen O'Shea's newest book, The Friar of Carcassonne. Dava Sobel writing about Copernicus; a new novel from Lloyd Jones (author of Mr. Pip), something from Amin Maalouf and countless other goodies. I'd add to the list, but then I'd cry in frustration and the catalog would end up covered in tear stains as well as drool. Horrifying.

New York Review of Books: Not content with churning out a must-read newsmagazine about books, these folks are actually printing (or rather, reprinting) must-read fiction and non-fiction. Tove Jansson's books for adults are on the list, but also books like the one I snaffled on my most recent bookstore foray, When the World Spoke French, about how the possession of a lingua franca spread Enlightenment thought.

Melville House: Shamefully, for a moment I thought these guys might be jumping aboard the "Christian fiction" bandwagon. No idea why that thought crossed my mind, other than the fact that I'd never really heard of them. But anyone planning to introduce the entertaining subversion of Andrei Kurkov's novels featuring Viktor the writer and his penguin Misha is someone whose adventures in publishing I want to follow. They are off digging up intriguing novellas by well-known classic writers -- you'll know the author's names but the books won't be familiar to you -- introducing writers like Imre Kertesz and non-fiction like Is Journalism Worth Dying For? (the final writings of Anna Politkovskaya) and Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler's Germany. (No, the author takes Hitler seriously, but is pointing out that the ability to laugh at an oppressive regime can sometimes lead people to resist it.) The newest addition to my MUST WATCH! list.

Little, Brown & Co., is part of Hachette and thus one of the "big boys" in the publishing world. But their fall list includes a new novel by the author of Winter's Bone, Daniel Woodrell, and an intriguing new thriller (under the Mulholland imprint) The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi. I don't turn my backs on them... Another great Hachette imprint is Twelve, which publishes a single book a month; the winter releases include something from Christopher Hitchens and a book by Eric Weiner about humans and God. (His last book was about the happiest places in the world; I suspect Iceland is a wee bit less happy than when he was there, pre-crash.)

Farrar,  Strauss & Giroux/Faber and Faber has an astonishing list that includes Dante in Love by A.N. Wilson, new novels from Jeffery Eugenides and Andre Aciman, and, from Faber, an intriguing looking book by Siddhartha Deb, The Beautiful and the Damned, about the new India. They publish interesting authors like Elif Batuman and Marilynne Robinson; Faber & Faber has an amazing backlist of poetry and drama. (Stoppard, anyone?)

Just because a publisher isn't on this list doesn't say anything about the caliber of what's in their catalogs, just that these publishers appear much more likely to focus on the kind of stuff I like to read. When I'm looking for a "plain vanilla" novel, I'm pretty much label agnostic. But if I'm not keeping up with these guys, I know that I'm going to risk missing out on something that will be a wonderful discovery, including a book that will be on my list of best reads for the year or a new favorite author.


  1. That's interesting - I never even thought of checking if there's any publishers that make up the majority of my reading. I do know that I am a big Bloomsbury fan too :)

  2. It took me a long while to wake up to this, too! I'd notice, idly, that a few publishers seemed to be responsible for getting several fave authors into print -- eg, Headline in the UK is great for mysteries -- but never really thought about turning it upside down, and scrutinizing particular publishers for new book ideas. Now that I have, however, I'll be doing even MORE damage to my book budget... Sigh...

  3. I agree with all of these (though I must say that I've only read a single book with the Europa label). Curious about the absence of Knopf from your list. Along with FSG, Knopf has long been my favorite.