OGR No 11: Seb Emina
This week’s great reader has a lovely tie-in with last week’s: like Penny Martin, Seb Emina edits a magazine founded by the ever-shrewd Fantastic Man crew. Seb’s is called The Happy Reader (they really do have a knack for picking simple, evocative title names) and it’s a charming biannual print collaboration between Fantastic Man and Penguin Classics. Happy Reader has given lovers of literature something original which they didn’t know they wanted, and like all successful pairings, makes (or should) people think more highly of both companies involved—it really was a stroke of smart marketing, which we so rarely see. Since it’s debut in 2014 each cover has featured a conversation with a generally non-obvious (thank you!) famous avid reader (the latest is the bright fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner) and a single Book of the Season which is used as a launch point for additional pieces inspired by it. It’s a very attractive formula and the unexpectedness of what each issue will deliver puts Happy Reader high on my list of those publications whose reveal on social media each season I anticipate most.
While we all await issue No 15 I wanted to pass along this announcement, which they made just this week:
“Due to unforeseen circumstances - the same as everyone else’s - we won’t be publishing the next issue of The Happy Reader in Summer as planned. Whilst we’re looking forward to a return to the printed medium soon, there’s still plenty of readerly things we'd like to share with you, so we’re thrilled to announce the launch of our newsletter, HAPPY READINGS.
“It’s a fortnightly roundup of bookish news, conversations and investigations into classic books compiled by our editor, Seb Emina. The first instalment will be delivered into inboxes tomorrow (July 2nd —WDV) so go ahead and sign up for a smorgasbord of literary delights, gathered in the hope of enriching your reading life.”
Do get your hands on an issue when you see it on newsstands (or subscribe), do in the meantime sign up to receive HAPPY READINGS so you can hear from Seb there, and do please enjoy Seb here.
WDV: You get to do a Happy Reader issue with anyone who is deceased, who is it and which book is paired?
SE: Actually we did print a beyond-the-grave interview with the most philosophical of Roman emperors. That was in last summer’s issue, the one with Owen Wilson on the cover. Marcus Aurelius asks so many questions in his writings that it was possible to generate an interview of him, by him. But let’s say Marilyn Monroe. There’s a photograph from 1955 of her reading Ulysses while perched on a children’s roundabout. I’m sort of obsessed with it. It’s a Happy Reader image, pre-Happy Reader. People don’t realise how bookish she was, which always makes for the ideal cover star — someone famous for other things. So there’s the answer: Marilyn Monroe, paired with Ulysses.
Excellent answer. It is a great photo.
Who is in your Editor-in-Chief Hall of Fame?
My colleagues Jop van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers at Fantastic Man have been huge mentors to me on a personal level, as has Penny Martin at The Gentlewoman, so them. I’ll never not be amazed at how Mary-Kay Wilmers and her team can produce an entire issue of the London Review of Books every two weeks. David Remnick. Tina Brown. I think what Nadja Spiegelman has done with the Paris Review Daily warrants celebration. Sina Najafi at Cabinet. I was an avid reader of the music paper Melody Maker as a teenager so I think Allan Jones, its editor back then, needs a mention even though at the actual time I had no idea who he was or what an “editor” did.
If you could get your hands on any one issue of any magazine what would it be?
I’m not that kind of collector really. I read and move on. Maybe it’d be a nice form of personal time travel to look again at one of the music monthlies I’d spent weeks with pre-internet, extricating every last drop of interest from every last piece of material. I’d read 4,000 word features on artists I had no interest in, just to pass the time until the next issue. Sometimes I’d read them twice. I’d know every picture, every ad. It’d be interesting to see one.
Besides Melody Maker, what other music magazines did you regularly read? Do any particular articles stand out for being instrumental in your development as a reader and editor and have you re-read any of them lately? I ask because I can definitely point to some in my own life which I read when I was in my formative years and every few years I look at them again. I feel magazine pieces read when a great reader was in their teens are for some reason rarely re-read or mentioned as an adult, whereas books often are.
Well there was the NME but it feels meaningless to say so given how similar it was to Melody Maker: same size, same structure, maybe even same typeface? Then I remember feeling disillusioned when I found out they were published by the same company and indeed produced on different floors of the same building. It was like a real case of the “controlled opposition’ that conspiracy theorists are always obsessing over. There were Select and The Face. But sitting here right now I can’t remember a single specific article so much as a general ongoing atmosphere. It’s going to bug me, that one.
What’s a beloved magazine title still publishing but its glory days are behind them and you doubt they’ll ever return?
I was going to say Time Out London, which used to be indispensable and funny and political, and just part of the fabric of London’s identity. Then inevitably it went free and became far thinner and ended up feeling like a compost of rewritten press releases. So I stopped reading. But actually I’ve heard good things only this week from someone I trust. No magazine is ever beyond hope.
One doesn’t hear that very often.
What’s the best publishing world book you’ve read?
I don’t read that many publishing world books but sometimes I do seek out those containing practical guidance. Two good recent examples are The Art of Making Magazines, which is as it sounds, and edited by Victor S. Navasky and Evan Cornog; and Telling True Stories, about writing narrative nonfiction, which is edited by Wendy Call.
What are some of your favorite sections from other magazines which are unique to each?
Talk of the Town in the New Yorker, Close-up in Artforum, the classified ads in the London Review of Books.
It’s true, the LRB’s personal ads were the best. So unique in fact that two book collections of them were published about a decade ago. I wonder if that section is still as rich today? It’s been a few years since I’ve picked up an issue. I know the number of personal ads in the NYRB is unsurprisingly much lower than it used to be.
They usually have at least one personal ad. Often it’s exactly one personal ad. But they have other kinds which I love to scan: sales pitches for berets, offers to buy old Beatrix Potter books, or the perennial notice from the ‘aging French rock star’ who will compose and record an original song on request for a mere $200.
What subject do you own the most books about?
Well that’ll be breakfast, subject of the only book I’ve written. I read about all kinds of stuff and go through phases, like last year I was reading a lot of classic travel literature, Bruce Chatwin, Jan Morris and so on.
Do you have a period in the past which you fantasize would have been an ideal time for you to be working in magazines?
I suppose as recently as possible before the internet stole the money.
Who are you following on social media who always gives you smart and quirky commentary on books and authors?
John Self, an Irish book critic, always has interesting things to say. Looking at his account now so as to illustrate this answer and there’s useful information about a scholarship that’s available, a plum quote from a John Cheever biography, some trivia about Doctor Zhivago and some new Penguin Modern Classics jackets for the works of a German writer named Irmgard Keun. He’s like a one-man magazine.
Thank you, just followed him. He does look to be a machine!
In your mind can a “happy reader” exist today who rarely reads books because they do all their reading via social media and links?
I think of that famous Truman Capote quote about Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Today’s Capote would surely look at this link-based reader and say, “That’s not reading, that’s browsing.”
What’s the next book over 500 pages which you think you’ll read?
I’m actually reading the second Proust book right now. I read the first one last January. I feel it’s time to work my way through them, to be someone who can say “oh yes, of course I’ve read them.” They are indeed an amazing reading experience. I really recommend the recent Backlisted podcast about Proust.
You’re British but live in France. Which is a better book town: London or Paris?
Paris, definitely. It’s almost boring to say it but it just feels literary in a way that London doesn’t. Is there any other city where an old philosophy hardback also gains the aura of a tourist souvenir? Those Seine-side stalls that also sell postcards and old cycling magazines still fill me with wonder. And even if London has a more lively Anglophone scene there’s a sense that every writer passes through Paris at some point, and when they do you are vaguely likely to run into them in person, or at least see them give a talk in a 60-capacity room such as at Shakespeare & Company.
We’re all fortunate so many wonderful books have been written about Paris, for if you’re seeing this right now as an American it might be awhile before you can get there…so, reading to the rescue yet again. Thanks Seb!
Seb Emina via Kinfolk Magazine