A Rainy Evening in the Basement of the NY Main Library with Daryl Pinkney
On Thursday, November 5th I attended a wonderful event at the NY Public Library on the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, near Bryant Park. Two floors down into the basement of this famed library was a gathering from NY Time Review of Books representatives Daryl Pinkney, Ester Allen, Michael Cunningham and Greel Markus.
The theme of the evening on this 10th Anniversary of the NY Review of Books included acknowledging the NY Review of Books Classics publication company created by Edwin Frank.
This esteemed panel was interviewed in a well lit room in front of a crowd of about 50 people, their four chairs in a semi-circle, the atmosphere imbued with the flavor of “discussing-great-literature-in-the-basement-of-an old-library-on a-drizzly-November-evening.”
One of the authors had written books with titles like Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces and about people such as Bob Dylan, Bill Clinton, David Lynch and the French Situationalists. I wondered what connected all of these themes.
Part of the topic for the night was publishing houses that focus on classics. One of the members of the panel mentioned that they grew up under the spell of the luminous Penguin Classics with their beautiful covers and sense of authority. Even amongst the most successful of authors there came with Penguin a fantasy that “maybe I will have a book in the Penguin series but I will probably have to be dead first!”
One of the first questions the moderator asked was inherently interesting: “What books did you enjoy so much that you could not put them down?”
Another member of the panel spoke of her deep love associated with publishing houses that bring together such a diversity of different classics: “For me it’s as if I am invited to a party of authors who don’t know each other and I get to introduce them to each other.”
Still another member of the panel spoke of his love of the care that is put into choosing extraordinary art for the covers of the books in the series: “For me it’s almost as if the art on the cover of the books tell me something about the books that the books don’t even know about themselves.”
Care is put into bringing a unique variety and diversity to the collection. For example, on the list of authors of NY Review is the book Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf and other selections you might not necessarily expect; in fact the list is considered so “hyper-decontextualized” that even Harpo Marx is on the list!
The NY Book Review at some point had a special list of “worst sellers” because they noticed that some of those books were often considered some of the most loved and appreciated of the books to their reader base; they often received requests for the worst sellers from readers who felt this would ensure that they would like them!”
Some of the quotes I appreciated from the evening were:
“What I find interesting is what is out of print.”
“Books mess wonderfully with your sense of time.”
“My favorite are the underground, off-beat, romantic books.”
“We all owe a debt to literary critic Edmund Wilson.”
“Read the Anatomy of Melancholy.” (mentioned 3 times)
“I tend to have confidence that if a book is on that list (NY Review of Classics) that it will be transformative for me.”
“Part of the excitement is wondering which book or books in the series will have that deep impact on your life.”
“We all have books that we feel we should read or should have read but for some reason we did not. But then there are books that fall in that interesting category of books that you ‘shouldn’t have read’ but you did, such as Heinlin’s Stranger in a Strange Land!
“We used to have a fun kind of book club in which we had a game where we competed to see who could humiliate themselves the most. The way to win the game was to name a book that almost everyone else in the room has read but you have not, which is a variation of naming a book that no one else in the room has read and you admit that you gave in and read it!”
“My favorite genre is 20th century Russian writers whose work was suppressed under Communist/Soviet rule, and whose work is just now being acknowledged and appreciated.”
“The nice thing about real books as opposed to the electronic/Kindle versions is that you definitely have ‘heft in your hands.’ In the same way, there is something about actually holding a pen or pencil that ingnites something special in some writers.”
But the best quotes of the night were from critic Daryl Pinkney (see photo above):
“Some come to NY to become a Jewish intellectual; I came to NY to become a Mad Black Queen.”
“No, I have not read that book. But I’ve pretended to read it many times.”
“Never say never when it comes to books.”