Sunday, December 1, 2013

yes, another 2013 best-of list: my harvard/mit/yale picks

This year Harvard, MIT and Yale University Press published 1,028 new titles, give or take.  Every one of them was worthy, and with luck (and with our ace rep presentations)  each found an audience beyond the author’s mother.

At this time of the year I remember that what drew me to these three presses in the first place is that I love their books.  As a bookseller they were my favorite books to order and sell, and as a book fiend I bought more of them than I could afford or could actually read.

And I still love the books we publish, but some more than others.  So I’ve culled a list of ten favorites  from the titles I sold this year.  These are not necessarily the big name, market-driven, high expectation titles from the lists.  And there are plenty more that I could endorse with pleasure.  But these are simply my top ten, in no particular order- the titles I’d most love to receive, feel most compelled to share, and would most heartily recommend. 

And needless to say, if you're moved to check them out, do so at your favorite bookstore!

Edited and compiled by Jeff Brouws, Wendy Burton, and Hermann Zschiegner
MIT Press January $39.95

Tricky title but bear with me.  Inspired by Jack Kerouac in the 1960s and 70s, artist Ed Ruscha created a series of small conceptual photography books documenting mundane subjects: Twenty-six Gas Stations, Various Small Fires, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, and many more.  In so doing he all but invented the photographic taxonomy genre, one of my favorite MIT Press strengths.  I still remember swooning every time a new Bernd & Hilla Becher album of rusting industrial hulks landed in the bookstore.  And everyone got sick of me extolling the Melnicks’ Manhole Covers, still one of the great photo taxonomies of all time.  This sweet, funny, colorful book, in which other artists spoof and build on Ruscha’s work (Thirty-four Parking Lots Forty Years Later, None of the Buildings on Sunset Strip, and Various Unbaked Cookies, among others) is also a gorgeous piece of book-making and graphic design.  I was thrilled to see it make Dwight Garner’s New York Times holiday list- though oddly, in the best bathroom reading category!

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien
Yale November $29.95

Another kind of homage, this time to the wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities.  Think Joseph Cornell’s vitrines, or those old-school museum dioramas we'd be marched past in sixth grade, or really anyone’s treasured display case of a cherished obsession.  The trick here is that these are also deliberate works of art, constructed by a who’s who of international architecture and design stars.  Curators for the 2012 Venice Biennale Architecture exhibition asked participants to share the contents of their lives rather than to create some object, and 35 of them filled empty boxes with meaningful collections.  The results are surprising, funny and sometimes puzzling.  The book documents the exhibition, artist by artist, with lavish illustrations and explanatory text.  It looks a bit like the two other recent charmers that were editorially midwifed by Michelle Komie at the YUP Art Workshop, Unpacking My Library: Architects & Their Books and Unpacking My Library: Writers & Their Books.

Translated and edited by Reuven Snir
Harvard November $29.95

I’m a sucker for city books, and I have a big collection of urban histories, walking tours, photographs and urbanist manifestos.  City poetry?  Not so much.  Milwaukee, where I live, is not the kind of place to which poets dedicate poems, though in our defense we are less than 200 years old.  (And we do have at least one fine poet, John Koethe, who has written lovingly about the city)  But some cities just inspire poetic devotion.  Had I the talent I’d wax poetic over Montreal, New York, Berlin- places I stalk like a jealous lover.  Last year Harvard published a fascinating new way to access a city, Mark Ford’s London: A History in Verse.  This season, I’ve been moved and surprised by this collection of Arabic poems about Baghdad.  Among the many sad consequences of the war is the material destruction of the city and its residents.  But it's also polluted the imagery that comes to mind when a North American hears the word Baghdad.  This heartfelt and sometimes heartbreaking anthology of love/hate letters in verse, spanning 1200 years, is a fresh new vector into a place worth knowing more about.  A sample:

[I Am Your Ransom}

Oh friends of mine in Baghdad are you
Still faithful or has our friendship worn out?

On the day of farewell, did your eyes shed tears
For me?  Mine still weeping, morning and evening.

When you talk of distant friends,
Do you speak well of me?

Oh Baghdad, I wish all cities to be your ransom,
Even my path, even my abode.

I have wandered through lands, East and West;
I led my horses there, the camels as well.

Never have I seen such a homeland as Baghdad;
Never have I seen a river such as the Tigris;

Nor such residents- tender qualities,
Sweet speeches, good thoughts, and ideas

People challenge me: If your love for Baghdad was
Genuine, why did you leave?  I give them my answer:

The rich remain in their land,
While the poor are tossed away by fate.

-Abu Sa’d Muhammad ibn’Ali ibn
Khalaf al-Nayramani (?-1023)

Matthias Messmer and Hsin-Mei Chuang
MIT September $60

One of the most massive relocations in history  is underway in China, a transformation only barely on North American radar.  In the next twenty years, 280 million rural peasants will be installed in booming Chinese cities in an effort to modernize and raise living standards.  This stunning book of color photographs, a seven year labor of love by a Swiss-Chinese couple, may serve as a final visual document of this monumental dislocation: China as it once was, and as it will soon no longer be.  Just about every image is mesmerizing, and it’s impossible not to visually scour every corner of the kitchens and living rooms of these ordinary farm families.  The explanatory text is smart, personal, sometimes surprising.  This book really fits with a longstanding strength of MIT Press, driven by its visionary executive editor, Roger Conover.  He’s interested in chronicling lost worlds, from derelict grain elevators to defunct mental institutions.  Isn’t documenting the disintegration and destruction of human and built landscapes one of the main jobs of contemporary writers and artists? Should be.

Nick Thorpe
Yale November $35

Perhaps it’s because I’ve just finished reading Artemis Cooper’s spectacular biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who lived every boy’s fantasy- well this one’s anyway- by tramping along the Danube across Europe as a teenager in the 30s, writing each day up in his Moleskine; or perhaps it’s because I’ve had a cabin on the Mississippi River for the past few years and have become a bit obsessed with river magic.  Whatever the reason, I was primed to love Nick Thorpe’s charming travelogue/history about his journey up the Danube.  (This counter-intuitive east to west direction was my big selling point for the book, as most people who have written about the Danube have traveled the reverse direction.  Booksellers didn’t seem sufficiently impressed with this detail.)  Armchair travel has something of a bad rap sometimes, but this is as good as it gets- literary and stylish in the vein of Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin, packed with extraordinary “characters,” and full of enough interesting history that it will have you planning a trip to Eastern Europe next summer, or at least dreaming of one.  

John Edward Huth
Harvard May $35

Did you know that the most natural human speed of travel is 3 miles per hour?  That would encompass walking, rowing, maybe sailing.  This factoid and hundreds of others make John Huth’s elegy to our short-circuited wayfinding system so compelling.  Now that I think of it, this is another homage to a lost world- in this case, the ancient art of navigation, which humans were once equipped to do by reading clouds, shadows, currents, and the natural world around us.  In the age of Mapquest, GPS and device addiction, this key instinctive cognitive ability has atrophied.  But Huth- one of those passionate physicists who can also write- has a plan for us to get some of it back.  His title, it turns out, isn’t just a wistful metaphor but signals a kind of practical how-to manual.  In a funny way, the path back to finding our way involves losing ourselves.  I really love this kind of science book, and he’s a fascinating guy.  Here’s a little clip that shows you why.

Edited by Leo Rubinfien
Yale April $85

Street photography has had something of a renaissance lately- if you haven’t checked out the amazing, recently unearthed work of Vivian Maier, get thee to a bookstore!  But the daddy of all mid-20th century street photography was surely Garry Winogrand.  He did some of his best-known work in Manhattan in the 60s, iconic images of people in odd but ordinary situations.  He roamed the US and much of his work remains undeveloped on thousands of rolls of film.  This incredibly lucious doorstop, the catalog for an exhibition that’s working its way around the world, is a black and white urban photography buff’s dream.  My only complaint is that every time I pick it up I know I’ve just lost another hour.

Didier Eribon
MIT/semiotext(e) August $17.95

This little memoir speaks to me on so many levels.  Didier Eribon is a smart, highly-regarded Parisian intellectual who came out of one closet- disclosing that he’s gay- only to find he remained stuck in another closet- the confines of his working class roots.  Politically progressive yet from the French version of a “what’s the matter with Kansas” family, (workers who gravitated from supporting the French Communist Party to voting National Front), Eribon uses his personal family history as a way of explaining where the Left more generally has gone wrong, and lost its natural base.  Along the way he cleverly explores how the class closet and the political closet function just as insidiously as the sexual one.  (And boy oh boy when they overlap!)  Of course, there are contemporary North American resonances too numerous to mention.  Is this another sort of  “documenting lost worlds” project?  I think so.

Dorothy Gallagher
Yale January (available Dec 15) $25

This sympathetic but iconoclastic biography of the great American dramatist is long overdue.  I remember from my first bookshop job in the long-ago seventies that Hellman’s memoir trilogy was a literary sensation, and one of the first hardcover books I ever bought.  She was revered for her courageous plays, such as The Children’s Hour, but also for her brave confrontation with red-hunters and McCarthyites.  In the past few decades her reputation has been dragged through the mud, and this is a partial resurrection.  One of the interesting strands of Hellman’s life was her Jewish and Southern background, and this volume- part of the wonderful Jewish Lives series, short, smart, attractive books that consistently find perfect subject-author pairings- gets at that dynamic beautifully.  Literary journalist Dorothy Gallagher writes like a dream, and she herself is a red-diaper baby, about which she wrote a fantastic memoir, How I Came Into my Inheritance.  

Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert
Harvard November $39.95

This revelation is the fruit of a long, complicated project with elaborate back-story, strong sales and reviews for the French edition, and some explosive controversy in the anthropological community, which has studied the Yanomami for decades.  If you want to learn more about all of that- and you will, after reading Davi Kopenawa’s first-person account, which makes up the bulk of the book- you can do so in the helpful front and back matter.  But I would plunge right in to the first-person section.  Essentially, this is a book about “the ways of white people” by a shaman and spokesman for an endangered people, a man who has traveled the world as a sort of ambassador and has strong opinions on western industrial society and what it has wrought for the Brazilian rainforest and his people.  Composed mainly as a coming of age story, he incorporates philosophy, politics, and history in his memoir.  He turns the tables on the European anthropologists studying the Yanomami, calling them the "people of merchandise,"and anthropologizes them.  (“Their cities are full of big houses filled with piles of innumerable goods, but their elders never give them to anyone.”)  Documentation of a lost world?  No kidding.  A big, scholarly, 30 year project, the life's work of a dedicated scientist, ushered along by superb editorial teams working on three continents:  exhibit A for why we need vibrant university presses.