One Great Reader, Series 3, No. 9: Geoffrey O'Brien
I thought Geoffrey O'Brien was still the Editor-in-Chief of Library of America, but he told me he retired in 2017. I'm not sure how I missed that news as retirement announcements are for some reason amongst my favorites in the industry, but anyway, he's no longer there. He arrived at LOA in 1992 and it was started in 1982 so for me he still remains, and probably will for some time, the name I see when I think about this essential series. By the way the LOA is a nonprofit, but with its name, how authoritative each edition is, and the classic, stately design of the series you'd think it was our government putting them out. Before I get to more Geoffrey I'd like to share a few LOA facts and design details for other book nerds who like this kind of stuff:
- The average volume contains 1,000 pages (and several have as many as 1,500–1,600 pages).
- The paper will not turn yellow or brittle for centuries.
- You can bend LOA volumes all the way back without cracking the spine or endangering the threads or glue.
- The trim size of 4 7/8” x 7 7/8” is based on the “golden section” which means they're not only visually pleasing but are also easy to hold open comfortably in one hand. Even at that many pages...
Ok, Geoffrey. He's a poet, editor, book and film critic, translator, and cultural historian who over the decades has authored close to 20 books and written for seemingly every literary and cultural magazine in New York. I've been reading him for years, mostly in the New York Review of Books, and I've always most enjoyed his elevated appraisals of 1940s-60s American jazz and pop music and noir fiction and movies and how he lived amongst and through such joys. You'll see that he spreads his reading enthusiasms well beyond those four categories, wears his erudition lightly, and provides us with several titles which will greatly burnish OGR's Season Three book list when it comes out in a few months.
Are there too many books being published today?
Certainly more being published, one way or another; wouldn’t ever say “too many” since who is to say which ones are in excess, outside of a totalitarian environment where production and content are tightly controlled. The more ways to publish, the more books there will be. Whether the number of those inclined to read them is expanding proportionally remains the question.
Yes, that last point is THE question.
What’s your take on today’s readers of LOA books versus when you first started? Same with LOA’s titles’ general reception in the marketplace now vs yesteryear?
The first Library of America volumes were published in 1982; I joined the staff in 1992 and retired as editor-in-chief in 2017. There has clearly been a generational shift in the readership within that time, while in the same period the scope of the series expanded in many ways. From the founding of the press there was never a hard and fast definition about what should constitute an American canon, and over these past decades the list broadened to encompass many different genres—journalistic writing (in anthologies devoted to World War II, the civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and other themes), crime fiction, science fiction and fantasy, children’s literature, writing on food and sports, critical writing on movies and rock and roll, and much else. The new and forthcoming volumes by Joan Didion, Octavia E. Butler, Shirley Jackson, E. O. Wilson, Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway (finally), and the stories of O. Henry, along with Kevin Young’s superb anthology of African American poetry and an anthology of feminist writings edited by Alix Kates Shulman and Honor Moore, give an idea of the range.
What anthologies have been important in your life?
A very long list, starting with the ones with broken spines and detached pages that are never gotten rid of. In a high school textbook that belonged to my father—The Riverside Book of Verse, published in 1927—I read the shorter and simpler songs, and picked out individual lines in longer ones (“I saw Eternity the other night” or “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen”). When I was eleven or so Robert O. Ballou’s World Bible came into my hands and gave a first glimpse of foundational texts from the Rig-Veda to the Tao Te Ching, and opened up worlds. After that there was Donald Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature, which affected me like an alternate history of the world, with alternate forms, styles, and codes, and led on to many other books. With anthologies you tend to go back many times to the same passages. Here I find an old underscoring in thick pencil, from Bashō: “Now, when autumn is half over, and every morning and each evening brings changes to the scene, I wonder if that is not what is meant by dwelling in unreality.” I could single out Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960) and Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred (1968), touchstones for me and every other young poet I knew; W. H. Auden’s supremely diverting commonplace book A Certain World; or Black Water, Alberto Manguel’s anthology of fantastic stories, where I came upon Flann O’Brien’s terrifying “John Duffy’s Brother” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notes for stories he never wrote: “A person to be writing a tale, and to find that it shapes itself against his intentions: that the characters act otherwise than he thought: that unforeseen events occur; and a catastrophe comes which he strives in vain to avert. It might shadow forth his own fate—he having made himself one of the personages.” Too many books maybe, but never too many anthologies.
Gosh, I’m glad I asked!
Can we go back to the beginning of this response and focus on those beloved books you’ll never get rid of? Mine also have broken spines and pages falling out and I’ve often had to resort to a rubber band to keep them bound, which over time inevitably dries out and falls apart, rendering it useless, but thereby produces a different physical reminder of what time does to human beings’ profound relationship with words on physical pages. Can you please share your feelings about these special books in your collection?
My sense of writing is spatial, which is why I find e-books unsatisfying. I don’t know where I am, and there isn’t the satisfying sense of physically opening a book, turning a page, going back to the page before, browsing freely in an improvised way. The books that have been around a long time, that you’ve opened many times possibly from an early age, seem almost to know you. There’s a continuity, sometimes with the previous owners. I don’t keep diaries but the books I’ve read and kept around serve almost the same purpose.
Whose names appear the most on the covers of books currently in your home?
Shakespeare by a good distance (plays, commentaries, sources); my parents were involved in theater and the house was full of plays and books about stage history, so Shakespeare got his hooks in early. Tied for second probably Jules Verne (I developed a yen to collect all the Livre de Poche editions with the original illustrations) and Balzac, whose work I have been very slowly making my way through for about sixty years now. I’ve also ended up with an inordinate number of books and magazines devoted to the films of Hitchcock and to film history in general. Even before joining up with Library of America I had a weakness for books in series: Penguin Classics, the Pléiade, more recently NYRB Classics—they’re like super-anthologies that can encompass so much more and stay open to incorporating new aspects of past and present, not a fixed canon but an expanding one. Finally there are the crime and espionage writers always good for rereading: Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, Highsmith, Ambler, Himes, Christie, Le Carré, Ross Macdonald, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and my antiquarian favorite Freeman Wills Crofts whose ingenious timetable mysteries have somehow been a great consolation during the past year’s lockdown.
Which writers from the past 30 years can you foresee slowly making your way through perhaps for the rest of your life?
I suspect I will spend a lot of time catching up with the many novelists I did not have time to read, including many only now being translated for the first time. And rereading contemporary poets whose work I love, John Ashbery, Susan Howe, Joseph Donahue, and a dear friend who left too soon, Michael O’Brien.
Are you a better reader with or without something on in the background?
As often as not there’s something playing, but if I’m absorbed I stop hearing it. Some things—Schoenberg’s solo piano music for instance, which for me at least is devoid of earworms—go well with almost anything. I don’t generally listen to vocal music while reading.
Funny, I can’t listen to vocal music either, unless the lyrics are in any other language than English—something about my brain not being able to process hearing and seeing familiar words at the same time. Completely agree about Schoenberg solo piano, and now that we’re so eye-to-eye (ear-to-ear?) on this, can you please keep going and give me others devoid of earworms which you can read to?
Olivier Messian: “Préludes pour Piano”; Federico Mompou: “Música Callada”; Miles Davis: The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions; Pharoah Sanders: Summun, Bukmun, Umyun; Marvin Gaye: Trouble Man; and (recently discovered favorites) Gonzalo Bergara: Porteño Soledad; Vikingur Olafsson: Debussy Rameau; Terry Riley & Don Cherry: Live in Köln (February 23, 1975).
Under which editor-in-chief of which magazine during which years do you most wish you could have been a part of the staff?
It would have been fun to have a shot at reviewing the books or plays or movies or music of other decades but I don’t fantasize about being part of vanished circles. It was my good luck to be associated with The Village Voice when M. Mark was editing the Voice Literary Supplement and to have worked with Robert Silvers and others at the New York Review, and I find it hard to imagine having a better experience elsewhere.
I will never miss an opportunity to ask anyone who I know worked for Robert Silvers to share favorite recollections. And I’m a bit embarrassed to admit the name M. Mark is new to me, so can you please do the same for her? I guess I needn’t tell you that stories are such significant assists in keeping behind-the-scenes figures remembered from generation to generation.
- started VLS as a monthly literary supplement of the Village Voice—she tried in vain to persuade the Voice to issue it as a separate publication. It was a heady moment. Staff and regular contributors included Walter Kendrick, Ellen Willis, Polly Shulman, Albert Mobilio, Lynne Tillman, and many others. Writers had tremendous freedom; I was new to reviewing, and M. was the best teacher imaginable. Likewise Robert Silvers, who earned my deep gratitude by steering me toward subjects I wouldn’t have thought to approach. He once asked me to review a production of The Rake’s Progress and I said (thinking with trepidation of contributors on the order of Charles Rosen) I didn’t know nearly enough about opera to take it on. He told me I should simply go out and see some operas; happily City Opera was still thriving then and I could very happily follow the advice, which led to a long series of pieces for the Review. His ability to instill confidence could be remarkable.
Which entertainers’ biographies merit re-readings?
Well, “entertainer” is not exactly the word, but if you open the autobiography of Miles Davis (written with Quincy Troupe) on any page, you are almost bound to keep reading for the rare experience of hearing someone (in a memoir, where it’s least expected) saying exactly what he thinks. (Troupe’s later addendum, Miles and Me, adds his own frank commentary about their friendship and collaboration.) When it comes to memoirs I have a particular fondness for those by friends, family, and other associates—books like Margaret Talbot’s The Entertainer about her stepfather Lyle Talbot, a stalwart of pre-Code movies, or Anne Wiazemsky’s Un An Après, her account of her marriage to Jean-Luc Godard and the days of ’68 (which unfortunately was turned into an abysmal movie released here under the equally abysmal title Godard Mon Amour), or Mr. S, by Frank Sinatra’s valet George Jacobs, which gives about the most candid and plausible portrait of Sinatra I’ve seen. Still looking for an affordable copy of the memoirs of Jessie Royce Landis, who played Cary Grant's mother in North by Northwest (though she was only eight years older than Grant) and his prospective mother-in-law in To Catch a Thief; John Ashbery, who did a flawless Landis impression, spoke of it with enthusiasm.
What a fact that Landis one.
Yes, I laugh (but should maybe shudder) to think of Miles being called an “entertainer.” Anyway, I was pleased when Miles and Me came out and always love knowing inside baseball stuff about anyone who does a follow-up after participating in a famous bio or autobiography. Can you think of some you wish existed?
It would always be interesting to know what the ghost writers of all those Hollywood memoirs left out for legal reasons.
Who are the most musical writers to you?
At various ages I was fond of reciting (to myself) Ginsberg, Whitman, the hurricane scene from Lafcadio Hearn’s Chita, certain passages from the King James Bible, the first pages of Bleak House, and the last pages of Moby Dick, everything grand and rolling. James Joyce and Malcolm Lowry and Sir Thomas Browne expanded the range. Later came the hardboiled music of Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, others. What is sometimes called musical can be elegant veneer without the possibility of jarring rhythmic lurches and the stirring up of chaotic elements. My first response at any moment would be Shakespeare because Antony and Cleopatra is the most sustained verbal opera I know of, with fantastic sensual values in every mercurial interaction of vowels and consonants, and constant surprises in its turns and segues. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse has the effect of a perfectly achieved musical structure through proportionality, echoes, transitions. My sense of musical possibilities continues to widen in reading the work of many contemporary poets—I think of Nathaniel Mackey, for instance, whose work enacts an extended and complex musical exploration which he has deepened in collaboration with musicians.
Which living writer would you most like to have seated next to you, with you both in the mood to converse, on a long distance flight halfway around the world? We’ll one day get back to when that could be possible...
I dislike flying and generally avoid conversation while in the air, preferring immersion in a long and preferably undemanding book. Even a terrible book like Tom Clancy’s Red Star Rising which kept me settled during a 14-hour flight to Tokyo. If I were inclined to converse, I’d rather do the listening and hope for a traveling companion who could keep me enthralled with information about things I would love to know more about—maybe a deeply informed investigative journalist like Lawrence Wright or a literary biographer and chronicler of America like Brenda Wineapple or a visionary polymath like Nathaniel Tarn.
Ha, I had to smile at, to my very specific question, this: “I dislike flying and generally avoid conversation...”.
What are other terrible books you’ve finished which you have no problem saying were such?
I once spent a year reading pretty much nothing except paperback crime novels of the 40s and 50s—it was research for my first book, and I thought total immersion was the way to go. A good many were bad but following through on the project provided the necessary adrenaline. I do like reading accidentally encountered books, ghost-written autobiographies or genre novels of other eras or weird self-help books, and miss the second-hand bookshops and rural yard sales where oddities used to turn up.
What are your favorite introductions you’ve read in books?
Most of my early literary education came from the introductions to various paperbacks of the 50s and 60s, notably Signet Classics which stood out with a great list, some fine cover art, and introductions that tended to be really informative and sometimes eloquent. I still have my old copy of Fielding’s Jonathan Wild with J. H. Plumb’s sonorous evocations of 18th century London (“The vices and follies of mankind were written large across the metropolis”); most of the others fell apart or went by the board years ago. I have a vivid memory of Seymour Krim’s brief introductions to each of the selections in his anthology The Beats, which was like a guided tour of a milieu that at age twelve seemed thoroughly exotic; and Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal was so mesmerizing I must have read it many times, since phrases like “Not all who would be are Narcissus” or “a Genet with Genet stuffing, like the prunes of Tours,” are still fresh in memory.
Who wrote the most literary liner notes you remember reading?
Some liner notes are literary artifacts in themselves; Harry Smith’s elaborate index to his American Folk Music anthology of 1952 establishes an almost incantatory tone with entries like “Hanging mentioned on record”—“Humming, records featuring” — “Lies mentioned on records”—“”Mountain vantage point theme”—“Poverty mentioned on record”—“Prisoner visited by relatives”—“Satan mentioned on record.” Mostly I’m hungry for information, of which early LP releases had so little, and also the opportunity to share somebody else’s reaction. A jazz historian like Loren Schoenberg, commenting on reissues of Chu Berry or Coleman Hawkins, walks you through every track and makes available details that would otherwise be unavailable or unnoticed—you might not always need all that but it’s nice to know it’s there. There are so many. Just looking around the room, Robert Palmer on Ray Charles, Steve Barrow for The Story of Jamaican Music, Alec Cumming on Burt Bacharach have all been helpful.
Can you recall moments throughout your life when you were happiest to be reading a book?
Most of them probably. When I had just learned how to read on my own, the Classics Illustrated comic book of The Count of Monte Cristo felt like a sudden vision of adult complexities (betrayal, conspiracy, revenge)—disturbing but mesmerizing. At fourteen reading Dostoevsky’s The Possessed pretty much without stopping except for meals and sleep—it must have been summer. By the time it was done I felt as feverish as the characters in the book. This past year has been a nearly continuous reading session ranging from the Histories of Herodotus to the novels of Robert Stone to the recently published Salient, an extraordinary book-length poem by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. that among other things finds deep poetic power in military documents from one of the supremely horrific battles of World War I. Aspects of catastrophe through the ages was a principal through line.
It is an extraordinary aspect of reading that even when doing it about “supremely horrific” topics, things you might not think about on your own, if the writing carries you away, the effect is so often one of distinct happiness. Thanks Geoffrey!