Graham Greene leads the nominations. Margaret Atwood is running close.
With almost 150 votes cast, the line-up for the 1969 Book Club is shaping up to be a perfect gender balance with books by men, and five books by women. Iconic 1969 novels, Portnoy’s Complaint, Slaughterhouse Five, and The Left-Hand of Darkness are all polling well, as is Maya Angelou’s vivid memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Rounding out the list is Daphne DuMaurier’s gothic time-traveling novel, The House on the Strand, just pushing out John Cheever’s Bullet Park. It’s not too late to vote – the poll can be found here, but here’s the current state of play.
Vote for ten books you want to read (or reread) from the year of Woodstock, Stonewall and Nixon’s inauguration – and join us on a literary journey.
One Grand Books is launching its first book club, and we’re inviting you to join us—whether local or long-distance readers. In the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, Stonewall, and Neil Armstrong’s “small step for mankind,” the 1969 Book Club will look at novels published in that momentous year – which began with the inauguration of Richard Nixon. What, if anything, do they reveal about the concerns of the age, and how do they speak to us today? In literary terms, it was an extraordinary year, with groundbreaking novels by Philip Roth, Ursula LeGuin, and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as some enduring bestsellers, among them Mario Puzzo’s The Godfather and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. It was also a year in which second wave feminism made its influence clear in novels by Margaret Atwood and Iris Murdoch, among others, and when the singular talent of Maya Angelou was announced with the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. What’s more, all of these titles have all had five decades to demonstrate their longevity and worth.
Televisions and movies would have us believe that the time from late November to the new year is a run on love, togetherness, and eggnog sipped in front of an open fire, but real-life seldom plays out so nicely. There are a multitude of reasons to dread the holidays, but whom amongst us hasn’t inwardly groaned about the family visit? Between the awkward conversations around the dinner table, or the long played out family feud, the holidays can invoke dread in the best of us.
There are people who choose to take Jane Eyre or Great Expectations to their desert island, and then there are people who choose Machine Art, a 1933 catalog for an exhibition at New York’s MoMA featuring stark photographs of household and industrial objects. Toasters vs. Edward Rochester.
The specialized world of rare book sellers has come into focus again thanks to the Oscar-nominated movie, Can You Ever Forgive Me? But although diminished by Amazon, high end book buyers cling on.
In her best-selling memoir, 84 Charing Cross Road, the American writer Helene Hanff captured a vanished world in which an English book buyer, Frank Doel, would hunt down obscure rare books to send to Hanff in New York. She, in turn, sent back food parcels to offset the scarcities of Britain’s wartime rationing. The resulting friendship, bonded by a love of books, lasted decades, although Doel and Hanff never actually met. He was dead by the time she finally made it to Charing Cross Road in the summer of 1971.
It’s hard to imagine such an affecting and resonant memoir coming out of today’s book buying world — in which most bibliophiles simply type their wish lists into Amazon’s search engine. But remarkably a few book buyers still exist, usually at the higher end of a market that has somehow managed to retain a devoted collector clientele. One such buyer is Bernard Shapero, who got the book collecting bug as a child hunting down old editions of Baedeker travel guides. “I remember going to a book fair in the late 1970s and finding one of the rarest Baedekers on the stand for £10,” he recalls. “I sold it for £100, and that was it — the jackpot.”
Today, a jackpot for Shapero, who operates a shop in London’s ritzy Mayfair, would include a few more zeros. He sold a 1476 atlas for $3 million to one client in the USA, and an early Bible, published just after Guttenberg’s famous edition from 1454, for $2 million. Not many customers are looking for such rarities, of course. “If 10 people in the world want a particular book that’s a huge amount of demand, and if there’s 20 copies of the book on the market that’s a lot of supply,” said Shapero. “It’s not like a Rolex.” As with most things, the field can also be subject to political and economic upheavals. Because of its rich literary history, Russia was a very big market for rare booksellers, but recent financial upheavals have dampened some of that enthusiasm, says Shapero.
And then there’s the impact of technology. “The great bookshops are dying out,” lamented Shapero. “The internet has pushed everyone onto the Cloud.” Yet beautifully-curated bookstores, like Livraria Lello & Irmao in Porto, Portugal, still hold on in cities around the world. The neo-Gothic splendor of Lello, as it’s more commonly known, is such a tourist attraction that the store now charges admission, while Librería Bardón in Madrid is a time-traveler’s dream, with 50,000 volumes lining the walls floor-to-ceiling, including “incunabula,” or books published before 1501.
Meanwhile, Hollywood’s Mystery Pier Books caters to celebrities like Johnny Depp who is said to have first editions by Edgar Allan Poe and Jack Kerouac among others. As Mr. Shapero pointed out, in the world of collecting, books is the only field that covers all subjects. “You can collect any subject, any period, in any language,” he said. “The beauty of the book world is that we have the ability to cater for anyone’s taste.”
But in contrast to art collecting, the pursuit of books is less about status and more about pure passion. C.D. Ross, a Mystery Pier book seller, said a big part of the pleasure of working there is witnessing the joy books bring to browsers. “Part of what I’m focused on is matching the appropriate people to the appropriate volumes,” said Mr. Ross, whose shop recently sold two complete sets of The Strand magazine, in which Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were first published. The 14 volumes dated from 1891 to 1909, and fetched a tidy $6,500. “I really want to see happy homes for books. We’re just a way station,” Ross said.
And Hollywood’s catapulting fortunes means that rare books might not stay hopelessly beyond someone’s price range forever. “We’ve seen people come in and look at a book and not be able to afford it, but then come back five years later as a writer of some renown, and say, ‘I’d like to buy that set over there.’”
The journey that books have made before reaching a place like Mystery Pier Books can tell a story, too. First folios of Shakespeare may show the marginalia of an 18th century actor. “One fellow who had seen our folio of Julius Caesar came to us a month or two ago,” says Ross. “Things were not going well for him, and he realized that he had not long to live, but he dearly wanted to give a gift to a friend of his who had always enjoyed that play.”
But should you trust that marginalia? In the tartly-observed Oscar-nominated movie, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, the real-life writer Lee Israel finds a lucrative line in forging letters of famous authors such as Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker, and passing them off to gullible collectors. Although most of those forgeries were eventually found out, many are probably still in circulation. But then, who wouldn’t want an original Lee Israel?