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At The Margin
Vol. 1, Issue 9
Monday June 26, 2000

Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.

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This Issue:
1. Learning to Listen to a Book
2. Publishing's Vanishing Middle -- Maybe It's Just Hidden
3. The King of Farce Collected at Last
4. Messages to the Editor
5. Do You Know Me?
6. Blue Underlined Words

1. Learning to Listen to a Book
"I know it's possible to read while working out on an exercise bike, or to listen to novels while jogging or driving, but I'm talking about the old-fashioned, inefficient, time-consuming, antisocial, self-indulgent practice of doing nothing but reading. Alone." The writer of this plaint is James W. Earl, a professor of English at the University of Oregon who remembers a sabbatical spent reading Plato, Kant, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Leibniz, Bacon, Montaigne, Freud, Yeats, Heisenberg, and others.

Earl's commentary appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (a weekly trade publication for the higher education industry) last April. He notes that professors in general spend little time reading for pleasure and that even a surprising number of his English major students report that they dislike reading.

Earl has cultivated the ability to remain open in his reading. He lectures his students that when reading the assignments for his class, "you're not there to conquer the book, to tame the book, to criticize it, or even to analyze it. You're not there to like it or dislike it, or to prove that you're smarter than the author. You're there, first of all, just to listen, and to hear what he or she is trying to say."

The posture of openness is uncommon in today's competitive world, except perhaps in recreational reading, which most of us have little time to do. Earl says he learned this reading posture from Sigmund Freud, who gave it in a book as advice to new psychoanalysts on how to listen to patients. Although Earl feels he has applied it with personal success, it is not a skill prized in colleges and universities and so is uncommon.

The world of the modern university is famously competitive, and it is rare to see an academic write so frankly on a subject like this, but Earl has been at it for 30 years and apparently has tenure. The article, a provocative look at ego and reading, is online:


2. Publishing's Vanishing Middle -- Maybe It's Just Hidden
Everyone agrees there is a crisis in midlist publishing. Editors complain their industry has been taken over by conglomerates that eschew literary and intellectual books. Independent booksellers say superstores suck the air out of their market and promote only bestsellers and gourmet coffee. Publishers say the biggest parts of their lists generate no profits. Authors say that serious writers are being squeezed and can't get published.

Everybody has a different view of the problem, and they are all right -- except maybe the authors. It turns out that more rather than fewer midlist titles are being published, if you define publishing as printing, binding, and listing in a catalog. Bookstore shelf space is increasing (Barnes & Noble opens about 60 new stores a year; Borders opens about 35), but publishers' marketing and promotional budgets are not growing accordingly. In Columbia, South Carolina, bookstore space increased by a factor of three between 1994 and 1997. And while the superstores obviously emphasize bestsellers and blockbusters, they have to have something to put in all that shelf space. A typical bookselling superstore stocks about 150,000 titles, compared to 20,000 for your average independent bookstore.

The problem is that the superstores don't promote midlist titles the way independents do. Independents engage in what's called "hand-selling," and they are often responsible for the publishing success stories, like Angela's Ashes and Cold Mountain.

I learned all this stuff from reading "The Midlist Study Group Report" of the Authors Guild. The Guild, being very concerned over the fate of midlist publishing, hired a reporter to research and study the midlist publishing crisis. David D. Kirkpatrick wrote a 50-page report for them, in which he made five principal conclusions: 1) the number of new titles published every year continues to grow, 2) midlist books are losing market share and publishers are willing to pay to get attention for books only when there is a promise of commercial return, 3) promotion for quality midlist books is free in independent bookstores, but their numbers are declining, 4) publishers are not boosting marketing budgets for midlist books commensurate with the growth in retail shelf space, and 5) small and nonprofit presses are becoming important centers of midlist publishing.

There is no doubt that rich-getting-richer effect is feeding the midlist publishing crisis, but Kirkpatrick points out: "The same thing has happened in the record business, the hardware business, the pharmacy business, and many others." You can download a PDF of the report, which is filled with facts, figures, and suprises (did you know the cost of a prominent book display at a large bookstore runs about $10,000?), at


3. The King of Farce Collected at Last
"The conversation in the bar parlor of the Anglers' Rest had drifted round to the subject of the Arts; and somebody asked if that film serial, 'The Vicissitudes of Vera,' which they were showing down at the Bijou Dream, was worth seeing."

For his fans, the style is unmistakable. No writer since has been able to get a laugh out of the word vicissitudes like P. G. Wodehouse, creator of the Jeeves series and the beloved Mulliner stories. He was one of the twentieth century's foremost practitioners of farce. I am not going to be able to use Wodehouse in At The Margin's "Do You Know Me?" department any time soon. The U.K. publisher Everyman has just begun to issue his complete works in hardback -- 80 volumes. The jacket illustrations are by Andrzej Klimowski, and the books are said to have pages of "elegant cream- wove paper."

It has taken this long to collect a complete set of Wodehouse's works for publication because he changed publishers serveral times in the course of a long career. The first four volumes are out in the U.K. now. It will probably take a while to get the next 76 on the shelves. You don't have to wait. Some portion of Wodehouse's enormous body of work is always available at used book stores. Avenue Victor Hugo has plenty of it, both hardbound and paperback.

Sir P. G. Wodehouse (it's pronounced WOOD-house) was born in 1881 and died in 1975. He wrote novels, short stories, song lyrics, plays, and film scripts (more than 20). After he finished school (Dulwich College, London), he took went to work in a bank, but he eventually got a job as a humor columnist for the London Globe in 1902.

In 1940 he was captured in France by the Germans and imprisoned in Berlin. He made radio broadcasts from Germany to the United States, during which he took the opportunity to play up his imprisonment for laughs and subtly ridicule his captors. The broadcasts may have poked fun at the Germans, but his countrymen were in no mood for fun and created a great deal of resentment. He moved to the U.S. after the war and became an American citizen in 1955. The first Jeeves story, The Man with Two Left Feet, appeared in 1917. The last -- Much Obliged, Jeeves -- appeared in 1971. In between, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves aged somewhat but probably not as much as they would have if they'd been real people. It is said that no matter what time a Wodehouse story took place, the social setting was always Edwardian England.

The line quoted above is from "A Slice of Life," a Mulliner story, which I found a Simon & Schuster paperback collection with no printing date (but which may be the 24th printing, if I read those little numbers correctly) called The Most of P. G. Wodehouse. It advertised itself as "the most lavish collection ever published." Not for long, apparently.

For a news story about the new collection, see this website:


4. Messages to the Editor
Amphigorey Apocrypha
Your speculation on whether Hyacinthe Phypps and Edward Gorey were ever seen in the same room together ["The Topiary is Neglected," At The Margin #8] reminded me of my own suspicions that much of the Gorey Canon dwells under assumed names, or none. the 1996 biography alluded to, but did not catalog, various anonymous or pseudonymous illustrations that Gorey did to seal the cracks under the door on cold wintry nights. my personal candidate was the cover of Joan Aiken's deliciously sadistic neodickensian "Wolves of Willoughby Chase" (i obtained my copy in 1963 as my very first order from the Young America Book Club, and was highly dismayed when no subsequent offering measured up to the precedent). this is hardly wild conjecture anymore, since Gorey subsequently illustrated several other (acknowledged) books for Aiken. I am still wondering, however, about the drawings inside "Wolves" attributed to one Pat Marriott (may she forgive me if i err) but looking awfully Ardizzonian.

i remain yr most obt svt,
d. g. cornelius

[Editor's Reply: Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop's Tom Owen tells me the May 2000 issue of the magazine Locus published an obituary saying that Gorey did the covers of "the early Joan Aiken books (as Pat Marriott)." Thanks for writing.]


5. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a novel, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to

Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.

This Issue's Sentence:
The sweet old farmhouse burrowed into the upward slope of the land so deeply that you could enter either its bottom or middle floor at ground level.

I'm waiting for your guesses.

Last Issue's Sentence:
Any resemblance between the Republics of Rome and the United States of America is purely historical, as is the similarity of ancient Rome to the modern world.

[Note: This first sentence is from the novel's foreword -- also written by the novel's author -- rather than from the text of the novel's first chapter. But I thought the latter would be too easy to guess.]

One reader ventured a guess: Augustus by John Williams. 

That was a well-informed but incorrect guess.

The sentence is from the foreword to A Pillar of Iron, a novelized biography of the Roman statesman Cicero by Taylor Caldwell, first published in 1965. A Pillar of Iron is a pretty entertaining story, but take it with a grain of salt. The "purely historical" resemblance between the Roman Republic and the U.S. is a good deal less significant than Taylor Caldwell wanted us to believe. When people try to create the same kind of society (a constitutional republic), it is inevitable they will resemble each other in many ways. But Caldwell's Cicero, notwithstanding her disclaimers ("I have spent nine years on the writing of this book and have been as objective as it is possible for a human being to be. I intrude none of my own opinions. I merely present Marcus Tullius Cicero and his world for the reader's own judgment and conclusions."), has the values and sensibilities of a twentieth century middle-class American and is even a sort of proto-Christian (although he died, of murder, in 43 B.C.). If you want a more critical look at Cicero, try Plutarch's Lives, which -- if you can't find it at the library or your local used bookstore -- is available at Project Gutenberg ( But it was popular in the 1950s and 1960s to attribute modern sensibilities to ancient personalities, and Taylor Caldwell was nothing if not popular.

Born in Manchester, England in 1900, Janet Taylor Caldwell moved to the U.S. with her family at the age of seven. She grew up in Buffalo, New York and as an adult she had several government jobs and served in the Naval Reserve. She was married four times. In the foreword to A Pillar of Iron, she described her husband as working on the novel with her. I found a web page about her ( -- choose "C" in the lower right box, then pick her name from the list) that identifies her collaborator (who never got a byline, apparently) as her second husband, Marcus Reback. She began her writing career under the name Max Reiner and caused something of a sensation when it was generally learned her first book, Dynasty of Death (1938), was written by a woman. The book was a family saga concerning a munitions trust. The story continued with The Eagles Gather (1940) and The Final Hour (1944). She wrote at least 39 books and sold over 30 million copies in the course of a career that spanned 43 years. Her historical novels include A Pillar of Iron, The Arm and Darkness (about Cardinal Richelieu), The Earth Is the Lord's (about Ghengis Kahn), and Dear and Glorious Physician (about St. Luke).

Taylor Caldwell was an entertaining novelist, but she also wrote social commentary (a memoir, Growing Up Tough, appeared in 1971), where she was completely out of her depth. She believed that modern history was a struggle of the middle class against a conspiracy composed of Marxists and the international elite. She took enactment of the graduated income tax (1913, sixteenth amendment) as evidence the conspiracy might be winning. Her theory is set out in "The Middle Class Must Not Fail," which appeared in 1974 in the publication The Review of the News. You can read it at class.htm. In 1980, Taylor Caldwell suffered a stroke that took her speech and hearing, after which she stopped writing (her last novel, Answer as a Man, appeared in 1981). She died in 1985.


6. Blue Underlined Words
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.

Book Publishing's Iron Triangle
An opinion piec by Bruce L. Bortz, publisher of Bancroft Press in Baltimore, describes the cooperative effort of the media establishment and the large corporate presses to keep small press products out of public view. Whether or not it is intentional, it certainly works.

Acknowledgments as Competitive Edge
An amusing essay by Henry Alford describes a trend among authors to expand the acknowledgments into tools to forestall criticism or techniques to boost marketing through name-dropping.

Mark Twain on the Web
"Ever the Twain Shall Meet" provides links to at least eight different pages featuring the work of Mark Twain as well as a number of downloadable files. Featured are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, among others.

An Argument Settler
If you ever need know what got the Pulitzer Prize in a particular category for a particular year, the website of the Pulitzer Prize offers a searchable list of all prize winners since 1917.

Unflowered Aloes
The subtitle of this Boston Review article is "Why literary success is a product of chance, not destiny." It's a good reminder that the touching faith we all seem to have that good books survive is really quite blind.

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