Thursday, January 28, 2010

New Lambs

Here it is. Not the first book printed on the new Espresso Book Machine at the bookstore, not even the first printed at my request or suggestion, or even the first of Charles Lamb, but here is the book I most wanted to see, and the book I most wanted to be able hereafter to sell.

So many of my oldest friends obviously need no introduction or reintroduction to the public. I do not any more imagine my interest or enthusiasm to be a critical factor in their survival than I do my liking for Schubert songs or sweet sherry; these things may not be to everyone's taste, but my endorsement of them means little to nothing, even among my friends. The books and authors I mean survive not only because I think them good, obviously, but because generations have known and loved them and will so long as books exist. Their permanence is as secure as mine is improbable. For me to write a little card to draw attention on the bookstore shelf to a book like The Old Wives' Tale, or Amelia, seems to me justified by want of sales at the store, not by any worry that either will not be there, or on some other bookstore's shelf, long after I'm past the point of making a sound. Less recommendations than reminders, my taking note of these books is just a function of my job, more a nudge than a push, a gesture to what might be familiar if not read. There is a whole world of books wherein still the author's name is known, but detached from a title, or where a more famous book has without meaning to left no room on either side for its siblings. And even yet, there are books, great books, that while the audience for them might be small, and may always have been so, their qualities made manifest to but one reader at a time, they make converts of their every reader and evangelists of every convert. All the books of which I am thinking just here, I've never doubted, may pass now and again in and out of print, but they will never disappear.

To think that Charles Lamb has ceased somehow to be in this company would shock even those of his many friends of but a generation ago. There are those still, not in the business of books in America perhaps, for whom the idea that The Essays of Elia is not in print in an English speaking country in 2010 would not be credited. I can hardly believe it myself. And yet, it is so, or so nearly so as to be true. The University of Iowa, only a few years back, reprinted a good volume of Lamb, though it cost too much and was far from pretty. To stock that book now, despite it still being officially "in print" evidently requires going to Iowa and wresting a copy from a box in some sub-basement. I've had no luck getting it again. It is a ridiculous position in which to find one of the greatest prose stylists in our language, and one of the kindest, funniest, dearest souls in our literature.

And yet, here we are, and there, sadly, is Lamb.

But now, just today, our good young technician on the EBM, proudly brought me the book you see here. It, much like its brother that I mentioned in an earlier post, is not a handsome thing. Those dolorous covers -- the only option so far for Google Books -- remind me of nothing so much as bound county budgets or the proceedings of a farm commission from the days of mimeographs and professional typists. Taken from a much abused J. M. Dent Everyman of roughly the turn of the last century, the text does not quite fit the page, as the book has been made to conform to the size requirements of the machine and the machine offers every book in but standard sizes. The headings on the page are threatened throughout with decapitation.

And yet, here is Lamb's Elia, complete, to be had when called for again! I can recommend him. I can sell him. I can put this book again into the hands of other, older, still surviving friends of the author. What's more, for the first time in years, I can introduce Lamb to new readers.
Whatever the state of dress in which we find him now when conjured from that great clumsy device across the sales floor from the desk where I work, however the worse for the journey, Elia is again present! Lamb restored!

I can think of nothing to better justify the expense of that wonderful new rattling contraption. Bless it.

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