NYRB Classics is indisputably one of the crown jewels of American publishing and has been since book one was released almost 21 years ago. Of course most if not all of you reading this already know that and most if not all of you have at least one of their books on your shelves—I'm not aware of any great readers who don't. I'm not one and even I have dozens of them. The 2 9/16 x 2 3/8 inch rectangle with the title and author/contributor names set in FF Meta overlaying a suitably distinctive image and the lozenge shaped logo in a contrasting color on the spine, you know exactly what I'm talking about that makes them stand out amongst any other books on tables and shelves. And that's just their exterior!
Responsible since the start for overseeing the program is Edwin Frank, and he has taken it from strictly re-issues, (almost always featuring introductions from notable writers, which is still primary and they still excel at), to imprints devoted to children's, kids, comics, and especially close to his heart, poetry, for Edwin's also a published poet. He told me this specifically about the NYRB/Poets line, but I think it also applies to his editorial philosophy overall and every fine thing they do at NYRB for all of us grateful readers:
"I wanted the books in the poets series to be portable so that they will accompany readers into unexpected places and moments. The series is otherwise the sort of mix, or mess, I like to make. There are poets from the past and poets from the present and translations from quite a range of languages. There's Mandelstam's famous line about poetry being 'a nostalgia for world culture.' I like that."
Before I let you begin, here is a PSA I pulled from their site which everyone who loves them should know about:
Is there a book that you’d like to see back in print, or that you think we should consider for one of our series? Let us know! We welcome your thoughts and suggestions. While we cannot respond individually to every recommendation, if you’re the first to suggest a given title, we’ll happily send you a free copy of the new edition when it’s published.
Please contact us by sending an email to email@example.com. Don’t forget to include any relevant information about the book: author, title, date, etc. Also feel free to mention why you think it should be published in the series.
I’m publicly adding the one at the top of my list here: Duke Ellington’s Music Is My Mistress.
And now, after years of enjoying their books, please enjoy Edwin!
-Wes Del Val
WDV: For which books do you wish you could write introductions, regardless if they’re currently in or out of print?
EF: Well, I suppose the books that would be most interesting to introduce are the books I am so close to that in a sense I can barely see them. Introducing them would mean to step back from them and see what they might mean to somebody else, and that would serve as a kind of reintroduction to them on my part. It's poets who would fit the bill for me: Dickinson, Stevens, Eliot, Creeley. To introduce “The Prelude,” a poem I love, a poem that is itself all introduction—that would be an interesting challenge!
May we please have but a taste of what you might say to introduce it to new readers, since you love it so?
Hmmm. Well “The Prelude” is a narrative of the growth of the individual mind. It is Wordsworth's mind and Wordsworth's story and yet the whole thing is oddly, attractively, impersonal. Wordsworth's sense of himself is not so much as an individual as a kind of medium and in that way he tracks a dimension of consciousness that is common to all of us, something above and beyond my thought, my feelings, my appetites, a center of feeling that links us to nature at large, or, turning that around, the link to nature at large that provides, if anything does, a center to our feelings. The poem is a kind of ecology. At the same time, it also has wonderfully detailed and evocative sections about—a famous passage—skating, about how books enter and shape a life, about London street-life, about Wordsworth's euphoria at the outbreak of the French Revolution and eventual disillusionment at its ugly Jacobin turn.
That certainly whets, thank you.
When you’re particularly low on the book business what do you read to reverse the feeling?
When I see all the fine books coming out from venturesome small presses, new and old—Archipelago, New Directions, New Vessel, Wakefield Press, Contra Mundum—I'm reminded of how many rich (if not necessarily enriching) and strange books continue to find their way into print.
Venturesome is right! “Not necessarily enriching” after listing those presses really intrigues me coming from you. Can you please expand?
It was a joke! I meant the books aren't always all that profitable.
Ha, of course! Didn’t obviously see it like that...but it is surely correct.
What have been key eye-opening reading experiences in your life?
Among my formative books were the showpieces of the 60s—Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, Catch-22, V and Gravity's Rainbow, Mailer's The Armies of the Night. One spring when my family was living in England I was hypnotized by Virginia Woolf's The Waves, a book I've never gone back to, not wanting to spoil a first impression of such intensity. Dostoevsky and more Dostoevsky. There is the moment in Dickens' Bleak House when, after the miserably poor streetsweeper Jo who lives in a cul-de-sac known as Tom All-Alone's has died, with the Lord's Prayer on his lips no less, Dickens addresses his readers directly: "Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen, etc. And dying thus around us every day." Sheer melodrama and sheer nerve, but Dickens carries it off. The spectacular orchestration of his novels still amazes and delights me. Iris Murdoch's novels and, especially, her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, mean a lot to me. I love the colloquialism of her philosophizing. I remember in the 80s in the London Review coming on the great AIDS elegy by Thom Gunn that begins, "Your dying was a tedious enterprise/ First petty things took up your energies" and deepens in feeling slowly and terribly to return to a new, devastating version of that first line at the end. The novels of Jean Rhys. Adorno's Minima Moralia. An address to young students of history from the ex-Soviet bloc that Eric Hobsbawm delivered not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It ends:
"Governments, the economy, schools, everything in society, are not for the benefit of the privileged minorities....It is for the benefit of the ordinary run of people, who are not particularly clever or interesting (unless, of course, we fall in love with one of them), not highly educated, not successful or destined for success, in fact, nothing very special. It is for the people who, throughout history, have entered history outside their neighborhoods as individuals only in the records of their births, marriages, and deaths. Any society worth living in is one designed for them, not for the rich, the clever, the exceptional, although any society worth living in must provide room and scope for such minorities. But the world is not made for our personal benefit, nor are we in the world for our personal benefit. A world that claims that this is its purpose is not a good world, and ought not to be a lasting one."
That is perfectly said.
It really is, makes me want to read more Hobsbawm right away. You just listed so many lasting truths. How is reading preparing you for dying and do you know what you think you’ll turn to if given the time and faculties at the end?
Dodging the question, but I'll say that it interests me that two of our great critical writers, Samuel Johnson and Susan Sontag, found the prospect of death unendurable.
An intriguing point to contemplate.
Whose letters do you most enthusiastically recommend reading?
I'm not a big reader of letters. Dickinson's, Lawrence's, Keats' are the ones I know best. I love Virginia Woolf's journals.
If you could be a fly on the wall between any two living people talking about books, who would it be?
I wonder what the American painter Archie Rand, so much of whose work responds to poets, and the English poet Alice Oswald would find to say to each other.
With what poetry means to your life, what specific matters or topics would you hope to hear them discuss?
Well I'm curious because I'm sure it would be a surprise! I don't know either of them. The relation of painting to poetry, however, is ancient and deep.
What interests you least about books?
The dreadful expedients of what passes for "storytelling," that dance of attendance on the reader's earnest gullibility. Though I'm also sick of what passes for the opposite of that: Knausgaard-stuff.
You’d be a poorer reader today if you weren’t keeping up with whose tastes and opinions?
You know, as you grow older keeping up tends to give way to thinking over. I'd say the answer to your question is Freud.
Do you still actively read him and what about him enriches you as reader?
I found myself, I'm not sure why, but with a strong sense of compulsion, drawn to his metapsychological papers at the beginning of the pandemic, and Jacqueline Rose recently wrote a wonderful piece for the London Review in which she points out that the most notorious of these, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which Freud introduces the idea of an innate human drive to death, was written in partial response to the toll taken by the Spanish Flu. In any case, I'm not interested in Freud as an expounder of a doctrine, and I don't think he was all that interested in that side of his thinking either, or less so than he is thought to have been. I'm interested in him as a thinking writer. He is a real essayist, following the lead of his thoughts and turning them around as he goes, and they take him and us to strange and suggestive and uncertain places. He is a moralist of the best sort, alert to how our sexual nature perpetually subverts our constructed identities while alerting us to the salacious underpinnings of moralizing. He is a mythographer of the mind. Id and Ego are best imagined as figures out of Blake, weird emanations of our perpetually conflicted and yearning human being. Anyway, this year—this last year—that reading Freud was some of the most interesting and pertinent reading I had done in a long while.
Which writers make you put down everything else on your plate when they have a new book, essay, or article come out?
Bernadette Mayer, whose way with words is at once casual, personal, and rigorously inventive. Fanny Howe, whose novels, essays, and poetry find new ways to explore the political and spiritual borderlands and desert places of American life. My first love as a reader was fantasy—Ursula LeGuin, Alan Garner—and so in the 90s I lighted upon Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy with total delight, and I read the two volumes of the new trilogy he is working on, The Book of Dust, the moment they came out. T.J. Clark, whether he is writing about Veronese, Poussin, Malevich or Picasso, looks at paintings with old-fashioned formal care and precision while thinking about what their looking like that entails—historically, psychologically, politically, for art and for life—with wonderful reach and daring.
If you were given $1000 to spend over the next week on books and/or anything book-related (collectibles like authors’ autographs, printed matter, ephemera, etc) what would you buy?
I discovered at the start of the pandemic that a good collected Thomas Hardy turns out to be surprisingly difficult to come by.
Cost or availability-wise? If the former, perhaps now that we’re several months into the pandemic sellers would be more open to offers...
I expected that Hardy's standing and popularity as a novelist over the years would have meant that both popular and scholarly editions of the major novels would be readily available. There are heaps of paperbacks, of course, and it would be easy enough to assemble a pretty broad sampling of his work by picking among them, but it's hard to find a sturdy uniform edition. It seems that anyone who has one is holding on to it.
Are you a collector of Hardy and/or anyone else? And speaking of collecting, what are some collections you’ve stood in front of in your life which have especially impressed you?
I am not much of a collector of particular authors or editions, though I guess my Hardy misadventure shows that I am becoming a bit of a completist. I like the little blue hardbacks Oxford World Classics used to come in and snatch them up when I see them. Likewise when it comes to the volumes of the Cape Editions series that Nathaniel Tarn edited in the late 60s and early 70s. One way or another, at this point I do have a lot of books.
What’s a book-world dream you’d like to see come true within the next three years?
It would be great to have Mavis Gallant's journals at last. Mavis was a great artist and a person of extraordinary determination and bravery—someone on whom nothing was lost.
Might they indeed be coming…?
It's unclear. A selection was published in the New Yorker shortly before her death and a volume was said to be imminent, but the years have passed without the book coming out. It's a great pity. Mavis had a very clear sense of her journals as part of her work as a writer and she wanted them out there.
On the mentioning of her name, thank you for making so much of her work newly available. Anytime I come across lists of writers and books people are most thankful of the NYRB for publishing her name and titles are almost always included. I hope you often hear or see such praise.
So her journals and Virginia Woolf’s. Since you’re not a big reader of letters, but appear to be of journals, can you share those which have meant the most to you?
Gide's Journals are fascinatingly slippery. Thoreau. I still have Pepys to look forward to!
What has been re-issued in the past decade that you’re envious NYRB didn’t get to do?
Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina. The novels of Alejo Carpentier. Elsa Morante's History. Carole Rumen's translation of the Mahabharata. Danilo Kis. Bassani's The Novel of Ferrara. Leiris's Phantom Africa.
I can’t imagine how many NYRB titles have made other publishers jealous… Thank you Edwin!
Edwin Frank, photographed by Jonathan Becker, via Air Mail