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Carefully chosen words

December 10, 2006|D.T. Max | D.T. Max is the author most recently of "The Family That Couldn't Sleep," a scientific and cultural history of mad cow, familial insomnia and other prion diseases.

ANYONE who reads a lot knows how remarkable an experience it is to find four wonderful books in a row and how much gratitude you feel toward the publishers behind them. That's the experience I've had with New York Review Books -- not entirely unexpected as its editor is an old friend whose literary smarts I've learned to value over the years.

The four I enjoyed most in the past year or so started with "Cassandra at the Wedding" (232 pp., $12.95 paper), Dorothy Baker's novel about a lesbian graduate student and her stormy relationship with her twin sister. After this, I turned to Upamanyu Chatterjee's "English, August" (336 pp., $14.95 paper), a funny, fat novel about a hipster in the Indian civil service. These were followed by a slim noir murder mystery, "The Big Clock" by Kenneth Fearing (200 pp., $14 paper), and "A Time of Gifts" (384 pp., $16.95 paper), the record of British author Patrick Leigh Fermor's trek as an 18-year-old, mostly across Mitteleuropa.

New York Review Books, the book-publishing arm of the well-respected journal, wasn't the original publisher of any of these -- Fearing's dates from 1946, Baker's from 1962, Leigh Fermor's from 1977 and Chatterjee's from 1988 -- but it reissued them as part of its list of about 200 titles now available. This series bids fair to be the most interesting reissue series of our lifetimes.

Why? What do they do so well? Their line offers readers discernment, innovation and the varied thorniness of the best literature, whether one's taste is for Renaissance physician Girolamo Cardano's improbable "Book of My Life" or for Argentine novelist Julio Cortazar's unsettling "The Winners."

There are no cliches and few repeated pieties in these titles. They require you to practice primary judgment. A few have not been to my taste, of course -- French comic novelist Jules Valles' "The Child" left me cold -- but these are rare exceptions, and I am not sure the fault is not more mine than theirs.

More typical is my experience with "A Time of Gifts." Dressed in dazzling language and chronicling a world that was about to be destroyed -- Leigh Fermor takes his trip across Europe in the mid-1930s -- it's quite simply among the most remarkable travel books I have ever read. "I woke up in a bargemen's lodging house above a cluster of masts and determined to stay another day in this marvelous town," he says about Cologne.

Or consider Chatterjee's "English, August," which had never before been published in this country. I had had no idea there was such a thing as alienated Indian fiction, of Indian civil servants with a wry sense of humor. When I found out, I pressed the book, which I refer to as "Bright Heat, Big Dust," on all my friends.

The range of the New York Review Books series is another reason for its quality. Classic reissue lines, even the most ambitious, tend to work a narrow vein. Take a couple of fey British classics, a minor work or two from the prolific greats that Penguin let fall out of print and add some forgotten travel books: There you have a reissue line. But New York Review Books goes so much further. In the series, 20-year-old American novels sit side by side with the Goncourt brothers, Balzac with Harold Cruse. What are we to make of the many nonfiction titles in the series? Nonfiction titles that aren't memoirs rarely appear in lines of classics, and here they add a new dimension to our intellectual history.

One of the series' signatures -- consistent with the generally retro look of the book designs -- is that they are classically sized paperbacks. Their size and trim, usually associated with mass-market books, enable you to take them wherever you want, tucked into your back pocket (which is what I do). And when I travel, I find that I am not alone. Wherever I go, I discover we are like a little club -- reviewers, critics and writers -- regularly discussing, not the newest hardcover Charlie Rose just had on, but the Prussian blue, ochre, chartreuse and magenta paperback offerings of this quiet, steadily expanding, beautifully thought-out series.

To my mind, the most significant cultural contributions of the series are the reissued American novels. These books show that recently published novels by writers now no longer much mentioned can recapture the public -- a daring proposition when so many new novels don't find readers. There is a beauty, a purity, to the way New York Review Books pursues this claim: No one was clamoring to bring back Baker or noir novelist Fearing. Yet after you read them, you are upset that their books were at some point not available. You realize that something more than a good story died when they went out of print.

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