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In Praise of Little Books

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It recently dawned on me that the volumes of collected poems popular these days in trade publishing are often a literary auto-da-fe. Are there a dozen people who have read The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara or The Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg from cover to cover? On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Lunch Poems and Howl, first and still published by San Francisco’s City Lights Books, have been prized and pored over by throngs of happy readers for decades.

For more than ten years I’ve had a small manuscript in my files called ‘Artie Shaw Talking’ – stories I transcribed from recordings of conversations with Shaw made two decades ago when we were neighbours in Southern California. The other night I decided to publish it. I uploaded everything to lulu.com, checked over the formatting and clicked ‘publish’. I then ordered three copies of the 64-page paperback. The price, including shipping and handling, came to less than thirty dollars. It took about an hour, all told.

A month earlier I’d done the same thing with a chapter from an unpublished memoir, and sent it out instead of a Christmas card. I received an unusually high number of thank-you notes surprisingly quickly. And a prime reason for that response, I’m certain, is that the piece could be read in under an hour, making it a comfortable fit between a blog entry or news story on the one hand and a normal-length book on the other.

A book should be good companionship, Jack Kerouac said in the middle of the last century. Perhaps today, when our laptops, Blackberries and tablets make all of knowledge their province, the book may be welcomed and enjoyed more frequently as a smaller pleasure field, a lucky talisman, if you will, to be carried around or laid down on a table to remind us of the fun of random contemplation, silent exchange, reverie. Then too, for anyone so disposed, turning out copies of such an item is now a virtual walk in the park.

Comments on “In Praise of Little Books”

  1. mmirer says:

    Ingrid Norton, over at openlettersmonthly.com is doing a series on “The Sweetness of Short Novels,” that raises a similar point.
    http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/the-sweetness-of-short-novels/

  2. outofdate says:

    Yes, very nice, but do we need to capitulate just yet? Because if lulu.com is the future, gimme the present any day. There can be no more abject, derivative, reductive simulacrum of ‘real’ books than the self-published misery they advertise, complete with blurbs going (I choose at random): ‘The genial human comedy of artist Jak Smyrl has tickled the public funny bone for decades’, ‘An inspirational story of recovery from’, ‘Born in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this anthology shares’, and inevitably, ‘What would have happened if Fitzwilliam Darcy faced a true rival for Elizabeth Bennet’s affections?’

    All I’m saying is that lifting this out of the mire would require the same titanic effort as fixing traditional publishing, or more, oh, much, much more…

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