Glass half full: whatever the travails of the publishing industry, we live in a wonderful era for reissues. Think about it! All of Barbara Pym and Barbara Comyns are in print! Muriel Spark is having a moment! You want A Girl in Winter or Maiden Voyage or Sigrid Undset’s Jenny? You can have any of them within a week. Several of my new favorite books—In Love, Climates, After Claude—were introduced to me in recent editions. And people discuss Stoner and Speedboat as if they’re the latest must-reads.
Much of this is because of the hard work and great curation of publishers such as New York Review Classics, Persephone, Penguin, New Directions, and Lizzie Skurnick Books—to name only a few—but the readership is heartening, too. We want good books, but more than that, we want treasure. And the problem is, without library stacks and used bookstores, it’s increasingly difficult to stumble upon anything on our own. We depend on these publishers, and we depend on friends.
For all its chaos, the Internet does not make random book discovery as easy, I don’t think. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, altogether. I mean, I’ve read a lot of books, but I’m not what I would consider well read; there are too many gaps in my reading, it’s too scattershot, and too much of it has been bad. There were a lot of third-rate Victorian novels in the school library, or midseventies expository feminist novels from dollar carts, or memoirs by C-list celebrities. If I’d been shopping with intention—or, indeed, had had to pay shipping—I don’t think this would be as true. But for every random piece of pulp or strange book I’ve picked up on a stoop or at a thrift shop—okay, for every ten—there has been something worthwhile. I love the shelf of NYRB Classics in my local bookstore, but there’s less an element of discovery involved; you know what you buy will be worth reading.
I was talking online last night with some friends about what the next big new-old book would be; I joked that I had a hundred dollars on May Sarton. (I was only half joking.) I got several great recommendations out of the exchange, and I had the usual good feeling in the knowledge that there are tens of thousands of wonderful books we’ll never get to read, and thousands that could be potentially life changing, or at least life affirming.
It goes without saying that there are countless writers due for reappraisal and respectful reissue; just off the top of my head, what about Dorothy West, or Norman Douglas, or Helene Hanff? Elbowing the Seducer? Several of Rumer Godden’s adult novels—China Court, Greengage Summer—and her memoirs, are out of print in the U.S. (I’m willing to concede that there might not be a big market for Robert Farrar Capon’s Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace, whatever my own feelings on the subject.)
I think if I had to agitate for one under-mentioned title, though, it would probably be Reunion, the 1971 novella by Fred Uhlman. Reunion is not exactly obscure—Arthur Koestler wrote the introduction to its 1977 reissue, and in 1989, Harold Pinter wrote the script for its film adaptation. Nor is it out of print; you can still buy the handsome 1997 FSG edition—though good luck finding it on the shelves of most bookstores. I first read it in college; it was loaned to me—an old hardcover copy—by my friend Dan. Later, I read it aloud to my family on a road trip. It is the story of the friendship of two boys in pre-war Germany. Here are the closing lines:
I don’t know where I read that “death undermines our confidence in life by showing that in the end everything is equally futile before the final darkness”. Yes, “futile” is the right word. Still I musn’t grumble: I have more friends than enemies and there are moments when I am almost glad to be alive. When I watch the sun set and moon rise, or see snow mountain tops.
I wonder if today people find the book too ingenuous, or too simple, or too old-fashioned. Maybe readers think they have read the story before. But I urge you to give it a try; it is short, and moving. I know that’s not the same as stumbling across it somewhere in the stacks—and those anonymous library bindings always give an added air of discovery!—but perhaps it can qualify as a treasure all the same.