FEATURE

They’ve Got Reissues

Warlock (New York Review Books Classics) BY Oakley Hall. edited by Robert Stone. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 488 pages. $16.
Stoner (New York Review Books Classics) BY John Williams. edited by John McGahern. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 288 pages. $14.
Speedboat (Nyrb Classics) BY Renata Adler. edited by Guy Trebay. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 192 pages. $14.
Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy (New York Review Books Classics) BY Olivia Manning. edited by Rachel Cusk. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 944 pages. $22.
The Old Man and Me (New York Review Books Classics) BY Elaine Dundy. edited by Elaine Dundy. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 231 pages. $15.

FUNNY HOW things call up their opposites. We’re in the age of radical damage to the attention-span-o-sphere, everyone knows that except the denialists. And web culture is distributed, collaborative, appropriative—fan fiction rules. So, right, naturally there has arisen a craving for the experience of long-quest immersion in vast narratives generated by a single brain—2666, 1Q84, Infinite Jest, My Struggle, etc. The long novel has never been better exalted. (We even dig pretending our television serials are generated by a similarly consummate and mysterious Authority, the showrunner.)

Consideration of books and writing has never before been so oppressed by the tyranny of “The Long Now”—or “present shock,” to steal a phrase from Douglas Rushkoff. Or at least it seems that way to me, permanent retrograde citizen of the out of print and out of fashion; I developed my passion for novels while working in used bookstores. I’ve spent my life since that time being baffled at how difficult it is to get a conversation started about noncanonical writing that’s more than a few years old. Even the early novels of a currently towering figure still among us, DeLillo, say, can seem too dwindled in the rearview mirror. Wasn’t this supposed to be the news that stayed news? This isn’t only crankiness about late-capitalist “Tweet or Perish” publishing, or about the killing-the-father imperative that collaborates with the former to make first novels more valued, per se, than fifth novels (which are so often better). It’s crankiness about both, and if you want to tell me that I’m yelling at kids to get off my lawn, my only defense is that I’ve been wanting them off my lawn since I was a kid. In other words, I know it wasn’t better before. But it’s certainly worse now.

My vote, therefore, for the best development in the world of books and writing during the twenty-year span of Bookforum’s existence is the miraculous appearance and persistence of the New York Review Books “Classics” imprint. There’s really nothing to compare to its success; the shelves of used bookstores are filled with the false starts and short reigns of similar “reissue” or “reintroduction” campaigns. Yes, Faulkner and Henry James are both canonical due to being reintroduced (by Malcolm Cowley and by James Laughlin’s New Directions, respectively), and we owe our awareness of Henry Roth and Paula Fox and Dawn Powell to similar efforts. But that was pretty much the whole head count, right there, until Edwin Frank of NYRB, and his brilliant helpers, began, in 1999, reinjecting dozens of lost books back into a literary bloodstream starved by “presentism.” Their list numbers into the hundreds now; many, like Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy or Oakley Hall’s Warlock or Elaine Dundy’s The Old Man and Me, had been hidden in the fatal middle distance of minor reputation and noncontroversy until Frank came along. The NYRB editions of John Williams’s Stoner and Renata Adler’s Speedboat were as much the “It Books” of their respective years of republication as anything actually new, which is pretty crazy, in a good way. For dessert on top of dinner, the books are gorgeous and well bound in good paper, and offer the most gently authoritative paperback-series design since the original Penguins. (Their nice physical form could be seen as another reaction against our current state of ether-reality.) In all, it’s practically as good as a world littered, as it once was, with used bookstores. The crank in me is chagrined to admit that for many purposes it might in fact be better.

Jonathan Lethem’s third collection of short fiction, Lucky Alan and Other Stories, will be published by Doubleday in 2015.