A pretty simple concept (obviously based on #homescreen2014). One Billy shelf* (that's 30 inches of space) – what will you put on it?


Here's the full list, in rough sequence of when-I-read-them, from left to right:

  • Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson by Alan Greenberg
  • Light in August by William Faulkner
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • The Essential Hemingway (mostly for The Sun Also Rises; but also the vignettes in In Our Time) by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • Selected Poems by Ezra Pound (really only for Cathay; I will someone would publish this in a lovely little pocket edition)
  • Howl by Alan Ginsberg (honestly, it's in there)
  • Neon Vernacular by Yusef Komunyakaa
  • The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
  • 'Exterminate All the Brutes' by Sven Lindqvist
  • Beyond a Boundary by C. L. R. James
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje
  • The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje
  • Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
  • Seven Nights by Jorge Luis Borges
  • The Lover by Marguerite Duras
  • The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins
  • On Photography by Susan Sontag
  • Chekhov's Short Stories by Anton Chekhov
  • Collected Stories by Isaac Babel (really only for Odessa Tales)
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  • Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion
  • There's No Such Thing as Free Speech by Stanley Fish
  • The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand
  • Achieving Our Country by Richard Rorty
  • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
  • Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis
  • Holy Land by D. J. Waldie
  • The Control of Nature by John McPhee
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  • All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
  • The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen
  • Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • Crime / Guilt by Ferdinand von Schirach

I'm assuming this is a repeat-every-five-years type of exercise, rather than an annual event. With that in mind, these are the books that fell off the shelf, through realistically most of them could easily make a comeback next time around.

  • From Hell by Alan Moore
  • The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens
  • The Beat Reader
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  • The White Album by Joan Didion
  • The Known World by Edward P. Jones
  • Live at the Apollo by Douglas Wolk
  • A slightly thicker edition of Huck Finn

* Why a Billy shelf, rather than say 24 titles (i.e. the same severe limit that an iPhone screen has on the number of apps)? I feel like a shelf is the basic unit of measure for books, instead of a screen; but I think we should allow an e-reader screen or reading app screen. I do read in both formats, but interestingly – and worryingly – nothing I had read digitally seemed to make the grade this time around. I'm sure some audiobooks might have made the cut if I'd been more diligent about this exercise.


"Brands provide an emotional experience and reduce inconsistency."


Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

I was actually casting around for a fourth hardcover to round out the weekend’s 4-for-3 offering at World’s Biggest Bookstore when I picked this up. I think I’d noted it after the National Book Award win, but something about the cover—perhaps a similarity to Richard Ford’s Lay of the Land?—made me think it was some rather severe contemporary fiction. In fact, it’s a re-edited/retold version of Peter Matthiessen’s acclaimed historical trilogy, about which I knew, shamefully, nothing.

One of those situations in which a cover that feels fairly anonymous when viewed online in reduced dimensions turns into quite an event when it sits face-out on the shelf, robust in its deluxe Modern Library production values. It’s a gorgeous book and it pretty much sells itself in the physical form. Which raises some interesting questions about all that a cover must do in today’s bookselling environment.

So anyway I’m now looking forward to some lush historical fiction. Here’s the breath-taking opening paragraph:

Sea birds are aloft again, a tattered few. The white terns look dirtied in the somber light and they fly stiffly, feeling out an element they no longer trust. Unable to locate the storm-lost minnows, they wander the thick waters with sad muted cries, hunting seamarks that might return them to the order of the world.


Note to McSweeney’s: Watch It With the Stickers There

I’m a fan of McSweeney’s ability to crank out gorgeous low-priced well-made hardcover books, and issue #29 is no exception:

There’s always a nice level of detail, right down to the price sticker.

However, I really would like to be able to peel this off without leaving a messy patch of adhesive on the back of the book. Why can’t I? Why, indeed, as a subscriber, do I need the price sticker at all? The gag isn’t that great.

Don’t make me come down there…

Penguin’s Gothic Reds

Adding my voice to the chorusofpraise for Penguin’s Gothic Reds series. Interviews with talented designer Coralie Bickford-Smith can be found here and here.

I’m a big fan of the Red Classics editions: affordable, well-produced mass markets. Their Gatsby is the most pleasant reading edition I’ve had since the mid-90s lime spine edition with it’s Tony Tanner introduction and gorgeous automotive cover. And I recently read their A Confederacy of Dunces, having turned my nose up at the ubiquitous Grove/Atlantic edition.

(Note to Grove/Atlantic: please discontinue your disreputable but presumably lucrative backhander with whichever glue supplier insists on adding an extra 50 per cent to the weight of every book. Books should not tip over backwards on the shelf, international glue surpluses notwithstanding.)

The Modern Library trade paperbacks are still my edition of choice, but I have a lot of admiration for the Red Classics project. They seem to be trying to find the perfect balance between accessible, browser-friendly editions—at a low price point—with a measure of respectability for the book snob. Like me. Anyone can trash up classics in an attempt to court a mass market (movie tie-ins, I’m looking in your direction), and anyone can produce a lacksidasical in-house series in pursuit of high margin. But it takes quite a lot of imagination to make classics interesting enough they will actually move off ‘staff picks’ displays at bookstores. Bravo.

Anyway, these editions look great on their own or together; the design is—in a word—spectral.

Modern Library Gets Shakespeare Right

So I am loving—loving—reading these beautiful RSC Modern Library trade Shakespeares.

Here’s what they have going for them:

  • Great covers. Read Shakespeare without feeling like you’re a student!
  • Perfect weight. Yes, they feel exactly like the paperback novel you’re used to holding on your hand in the subway every day.
  • Astonishing price. I kid you not: these are trade paperbacks at $6 each. And we are not talking about mass market paper here.
  • Scene by scene exposition. (Which they are kind enough to call “analysis”.) Because, let’s be honest, from time to time you may need some help to know what the hell is going on. This appears at the end of the play, not at the start of every scene, allowing you to resist the temptation to read it all upfront.
  • Explanatory notes for difficult words and passages, which appear at the bottom of each page—without overwhelming it—for easy reference.
  • Introductions that draw you into the text and are less than ten pages long.
  • Oh, and the most exhilarating language, the most probing thematic inquiry, and the keenest psychological insight in the history of English. But you knew that already.

In short, they do everything possible to remove obstacles between you and the plays. That sounds easy, but I’ve never found another edition or series that does it—all of it—satisfactorily. I swear, they didn’t even call me up to ask what I’ve been griping about all these years.

Plus there’s a whole bunch of stuff that you probably don’t care about:

  • The RSC endorsement (which delivers a significant “in performance” essay in each volume).
  • Respectable scholarship. Yes, the textual notes and passages from other quartos are there if you really want them.
  • Further reading, chronologies, and a brief “key facts” section (with helpful notes on dates and sources).

In short, as far as I’m concerned they are the definitive stand-alone editions for the adult reader. Highly recommended. Andtherearemorecoming.