Readings from “A Diary of the Century” by Edward Robb Ellis

[Editor’s Note, Feb. 22, 2013: The post below is a revised version of a piece I published on Feb. 22, 2012, the last anniversary of Edward Robb Ellis’s birthday.]

Entries from A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis, about whom I blogged earlier today, on the occasion of what would have been his 102nd birthday, February 22.

Monday, October 5, 1931 This morning I got a letter from Mother saying that the First National Bank of Kewanee has closed. That’s the bank that has every cent I own. Mother also said that Grandpa Robb had all of his money there, and now Grandma is worried to death. Many of the people in Kewanee stood in front of the closed doors of the bank, weeping and cursing. One of Mother’s women friends ran up and down our street, bewailing the fact that her family has lost everything. . . . Here I am at age 20–absolutely penniless.

University of Missouri, Sunday, January 3, 1932 Today I saw my first bread line–200 starving men forming a gray line as they waited for food. The sight of them disturbed me.

Saturday, January 9. 1932 Nace Strickland is the best room mate one could have. Today he told me something that happened when he was a child. Raised in St. Louis, he didn’t know much about country life, so he was excited when two of his aunts took him for a drive on back roads. In one pasture he saw a bull mounting a cow, whereupon Nace exclaimed: “Hey, I didn’t know those things could milk themselves.”

Kewanee, Illinois, Saturday, June 11, 1932 Last night I dreamed I held my diary under a shower and was delighted when the words did not wash off. Does this mean I think my diary may make me “immortal?”

Monday, February 19, 1934 Some of my favorite songs: My Silent Love . . . Lullaby of the Leaves . . . I’ve Got the South in My Soul . . . Time on My Hands . . . Old Rockin’ Chair . . . Piccalo Pete . . . Harmonica Harry . . . I Kiss Your Hand, Madame . . . Somebody Loves Me . . . I Surrender, Dear . . . Body and Soul . . . All of Me . . . You’re My Everything . . . Mona Lisa . . . The Man I Love . . . What Wouldn’t I Do That for Man . . . Mood Indigo. / / more . . .

Excited with a New Assignment–Helping Protect the Freedom to Read

ABFFE logoI’m pleased to have a new consulting client, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), a non-profit organization that acts as the voice that independent booksellers and the book community raise in opposition to censorship and book banning. I’ll be working with them on fundraising and marketing, and over time, I hope their social networking. The funds ABFFE raises support programs promoting free expression, like their signature initiative, Banned Books Week. ABFFE also advocates for bookstore customer privacy. This has become a flashpoint several times over the past couple decades.

In the 1990s, Whitewater Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr subpoenaed the bookstore purchase records of Monica Lewinsky. Kramer Books & Afterwords in Washington D.C., was the target of Starr’s efforts. At a Book Expo America during the 1990s I recall picking up a t-shirt emblazoned with the message “Subpoenaed for Bookselling” that I wore for several years afterward.  Then, after 9/11 the Bush administration, in enforcing the Patriot Act, demanded that Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore and several public libraries hand over the purchase records and circulation history of some of their customers and patrons. ABFFE was in the trenches throughout these instances, helping booksellers and librarians resist the demands.

The first assignment I’m working on with ABFFE is the expansion of their affiliate program. Under this banner, companies that sell sidelines to bookstores, such as their  newest partner Filofax, contribute to ABFFE a percentage of the sales they make to American Booksellers Association (ABA) member bookstores. Sidelines from Filofax include journals,  and planners, as well as Lamy pens and pencils and diaries from Letts of London. Other affiliate partners supply bookstores with such items as reading glasses and bookmarks. I’ve drafted a press release announcing ABFFE’s new partnership with Filofax, which also mentions my new work with the foundation. The release, posted on the news portion of ABFFE’s website, is being circulated to book industry news outlets and bookstores around the country. I will be reaching out to sideline companies to recruit them for the program, and to booksellers, asking them who their best sideline suppliers are. If you’re interested in ABFFE’s work, I encourage you to follow them on Twitter where their handle is @freadom, or to like their Facebook page.

This is a particularly welcome assignment for me, having started out in the book business as a retail bookseller. Undercover Books, which I ran with my sibling and our parents, was an active member store in the ABA. My late brother Joel served as an ABA board member. We were activist booksellers, and Joel especially relished working on issues like those that ABFFE often confronts. In 2000 he ran for Congress as a Libertarian party candidate, placing reader privacy high on the list of issues he campaigned on. When Joel died in 2009, my sister Pamela and I made ABFFE one of the organizations that friends of the family and longtime Undercover customers were encouraged to donate to in his memory.

Happily, yet another personal connection pertains here. Readers of this blog may recall my longtime association with author and notable diarist Edward Robb Ellis (1911-98), who stands still as the writer remembered for having kept a diary longer than anyone else in American history, from 1927 until the year of his death. Between 1995-98, I edited and published four of Ellis’s books, including  A Diary of the Century: Tales From America’s Greatest Diarist, with an Introduction by Pete Hamill, and The Epic of New York City, both of which are still in print today.

Eddie, as all his friends called him, was a passionate advocate and ambassador of diary-keeping, so much so that after the Guinness Book of World Records recognized him and his diary in their 1981 edition for his achievement in American letters, the aforementioned Letts of London, in the business of making diaries since 1796, arranged with Eddie to publish “The Ellis Diary,” a handsome red leatherette bound, gold-ribbon bookmarked blank diary. You can imagine then how tickled I was when as part of this new assignment I scanned the catalogs and materials ABFFE director Chris Finan gave me to read up on Filofax’s business, happily discovering their association with the venerable Letts of London. Moreover, when I called and introduced myself to Filofax USA’s Paul Brusser, I learned that Letts of London is actually now Filofax’s parent company–it’s clear this long-living British company is still going strong. I wonder if anyone with Letts of London today remembers Eddie Ellis and “The Ellis Diary.” One of the nice things about this new gig is it may offer me the chance to find out! Below you’ll find some artifacts illustrating my work with Eddie Ellis, and his relationship with Letts of London. Click here to see photos.

#FridayReads, Nov. 23–“The Double Game” and “Gotham”

This week, more of a #FridayRe-Reads than a #FridayReads

#FridayReads, Nov. 23–The Double Game, Dan Fesperman’s brilliant riff on the spy novel genre, and Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace.  It may be the distractions of the holiday week–I’ve just been re-reading a couple of favorites. Last summer I blogged about Fesperman’s novel, and found it so irresistible I’ve picked it up again. The author ingeniously embeds plot points and clues in his story from books by giants of the genre–Le Carre, Ambler, Greene, Buchan, Childers, and others–actual volumes that are in the personal library of the novel’s narrator. It’s a true tour de force, and so good I find myself challenged to say something truly intelligent about it. It was published last August, and I’ve been a bit disappointed to see that it seems to have been published without the notice it deserves.

Gotham, published by Oxford University Press in 1999, is a rare book written by scholars in that it is as readable as any novel or potboiler. Although the narrative proceeds chronologically from the establishment of New Amsterdam through the incorporation of the five boroughs in to one great city, there are tremendous set pieces in it–on the electrification of the metropolis; the Draft Riots; the rise of a national publishing scene from Manhattan, and many others. A second volume, bringing the history of the city up to the present, is due to be published at some future point. Meantime, I relish this initial volume, so good on so many aspects of New York City history. Before publication it was praised by the late Edward Robb Ellis, about whom I blogged on the latest anniversary of his birthday. I published four books by Ellis, including his worthy predecessor to Gotham, The Epic of New York City. Eddie blurbed Burrows’ and Wallace’s book, saying, “Gotham is a masterpiece. It is the best history of New York ever written. It will be read a century from now.”

This week I’ve also read and savored writer Nick Paumgarten’s thorough examination of the Grateful Dead’s library of in-concert live recordings that’s running in the current New Yorker. I actually disagree with some of his dismissive conclusions about the Dead’s music, but am appreciative of the effort he went to in listening to these many hours of music, as well as visiting with the archivists and band members such as Phil Lesh.

Senator Sherrod Brown ♥s “Rust Belt Chic”

So glad to be one of the 35 contributors to Rust Belt Chic: A Cleveland Anthology, with my essay, “Remembering Mr. Stress, Live at the Euclid Tavern,” on a venerable bluesman I followed avidly for years when I lived in Cleveland. Among the writers in the book is Connie Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who for many years worked at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She has recently left the paper while her husband, Sherrod Brown, runs for re-election to the US Senate from the State of Ohio. Today, on the Rust Belt Chic Facebook page, I saw this, a note from Ms. Schultz:

“Sherrod didn’t get home until after midnight last night, but as soon as he saw my newly arrived stack of ‘Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology,’ he had to pick up a book and take a look. ‘Wow,’ he said, over and over, as he recognized one writer’s name after another, read aloud some of the titles and marveled at the photos.”

Nice, huh?

At the time of Rust Belt Chic’s publication earlier this month, I cross-posted my essay on Mr. Stress and wrote these paragraphs to introduce the book to readers. Allow me to quote myself:

As a sign of just how community-oriented the book really is, editors Trubek and Piiparinen asked all the contributors, in the event that the book sells well enough to make back its expenses and reaches into profitability, would we want an honorarium payment, or would we choose to plow our earnings into another indie project to be chosen first from among book ideas presented by us contributors, with one (or if we’re really fortunate, more than one) project being chosen for funding. I have a ready book idea–a new volume to be culled from the Guinness Book of World Records-recognized diary of Edward Robb Ellis, whose A Diary of the Century: Tales from America’s Greatest Diarist, I edited and published in 1995. I was happy to choose the second option offered.

With all that said, I’ll continue this preamble by saying I hope you buy the book as a print or a digital edition, or one of each, not because of charitable intentions (though that’s okay too) but because it offers more than fifty fine examples of narrative journalism, chronicling a distinctive part of the country that is too often overlooked on the literary and cultural map. I also urge you to follow the book’s Twitter feed, @rust-belt-chic. On my own Twitter feed, @philipsturner, I’ve started a hashtag, #MrStress. You may also ‘like’ the Rust Belt Chic Facebook page. Thank you in advance for supporting this exciting experiment in cultural urban renewal.
Thanks for your support of Rust Belt Chic: A Cleveland Anthology, and I hope you enjoy reading my essay on Mr. Stress, cross-posted here on The Great Gray Bridge.


C-Span’s Brian Lamb–Good for TV, Good for the USA, Good for Books

I read with interest last night the news that C-Span founder Brian Lamb’s decided to step aside as active CEO of the network, leaving the leadership to a two-person combo, Susan Swain and Rob Kennedy. I’ve worked with Brian and Susan and I’m very happy for them both–for Brian, who can step back a bit after close to three decades in day-to-day leadership of the innovative network, and for Susan, who like Brian has always been a pleasant presence on-screen and great to deal with on any matters relating to their prodigious coverage of nonfiction books. In fact, if publishers and authors have not given C-Span an award for its coverage of current affairs and issues books, it’s hight time we as an industry did so.

I got to know Brian, and Susan, when as an editor with Times Books of Random House I edited a book with him in 1998-99. It was Booknotes–Life Stories: Notable Biographers on the People Who Shaped America, drawn from Brian’s on-air conversations with the more than 500 biographers he’d interviewed on “Booknotes,” the program that preceded his current showcase, “Q&A.” Imagine a book filled with the insights of Robert Caro (on LBJ), Ron Chernow (on John D. Rockefeller), and Blanche Wiesen Cook (on Eleanor Roosevelt), and multiply it times a couple hundred. One of the great evenings of my career was the night we launched the book at Barnes & Noble’s Union Square store, with Brian moderating a discussion among Caro, Chernow, and Cook. After the signing, as we all headed across the Square  to a restaurant I had the chance to introduce myself to Caro, whose indomitable book on Robert Moses, The Power Broker, had crystallized in me a dream to live in New York long before it was a practical possibility.  As we were crossing 17th Street, I said to Caro, “Your book made me nostalgic for the city and a time I never lived in.” Caro stopped in the street, turned to me and in his broad Bronx accent marveled, “No one’s ever said that to me.” I was some kind of glad that night, especially when Caro later told me that he long admired my late author Edward Robb Ellis and his books, The Epic of New York City and A Diary of the Century.

Working on the manuscript with Brian, he was always self-effacing and eager to hear my take on the material. Despite what I’ve seen expressed by a few commenters below the TPM story on this development, C-Span has no partisan agenda, and neither does its founder. And the neutral ‘C-Span look’ that hosts have when callers phone in and make their aggressively partisan points? It’s no accident; rather, it’s a product of Brian’s studious refusal to choose sides in Washington. By now, if a D.C. backbench politician isn’t being heard, it’s not for lack of opportunity via C-Span and other cable networks. I’d argue that C-Span has made hearing from politicians almost routine, and while we may feel we get too much of them nowadays, I believe that’s an improvement over the era when few members of congress not in leadership positions were even heard from.

Detractors might say that Speakers of the House still control the camera, and that’s true, but not for lack of C-Span trying to expand the number of lenses positioned in the chamber. Now, if the Supreme Court would finally accede to Lamb’s request that they allow cameras in their Court–something he’s asked for repeatedly over the past several years–we’d also have a somewhat more open third branch of government.

“Dreams From My Father” & Kodansha Globe, 1995-96

As some of my book biz friends know, in the 90s I had a good long tenure as an editorial executive with Kodansha America, the NY office of the largest Japanese publisher. Although we published some Asian-oriented titles, it was a mostly U.S. list with such books as the national bestseller al bestseller Having Our Say, by the centenarian Delaney sisters, and A Diary of the Century:Tales From American’s Great Diarist by Edward Robb Ellis, which sold well and got lots of coverage, including a rare hat trick when the author appeared on all three network morning shows the week of publication. I just blogged about Eddie a few weeks ago, on the anniversary of what would have been his 101st birthday.

During my five years with Kodansha, I also started a trade paperback series that in some ways anticipated the fine list published nowadays by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint. Kodansha Globe combined titles in cross-cultural studies, anthropology, natural history, adventure, narrative travel and belle lettres. I developed the program with my astute and affable Japanese boss Minato Asakawa, with valuable contributions from talented editorial colleagues Paul DeAngelis–who introduced me to the work of Owen Lattimore, whose 1950 anti-McCarthyite broadside Ordeal by Slander I would republish in 2003–and Deborah Baker, about whom I’ll say more below. By the time I left Kodansha in 1997 we had published more than ninety Globe titles, including the first paperback edition of Barack Obama’s debut book Dreams From My Father

The Globe list included revivals of notable books that had fallen out of print: Man Meets Dog, on the origins of the human-canine bond, by Konrad Lorenz, Alone, a harrowing account of survival near the South Pole, by Admiral Richard Byrd, Blackberry Winter, the youthful memoir of Margaret Mead, and All Aboard with E.M. Frimbo, a classic of train culture by New Yorker stalwarts Rogers E.M. Whitaker and Tony Hiss; originals like Sarajevo, Exodus of a City, a biography of the besieged city by Bosnian playwright Dzevad Karahasan, which the Voice Literary Supplement made a year-end best book during the Balkan Wars; and reprints of current hardcovers from major houses like Peter Canby’s The Heart of the Sky, on the resilience of Mayan culture in the Americas and Alex Shoumatoff’s The Mountain of Names, chronicling the history of human kinship and genealogy, which before dying last year Christopher Hitchens made the springboard for one his last columns. We also developed a strong list in books on Central Asia, including four books by the master chronicler of the region, Peter Hopkirk, whose The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia was the top-selling Globe title. // more w/illustrations . . .

Harvey Wang’s Portraits of a Vanished NY at the Tenement Museum

Siegfried Liebman, mannequin maker; Eddie Day, brakeman on the Cyclone at Coney Island; Helen Giamanco, salad maker, Horn & Hardart Automat; Joe Baffir, boxing trainer; Julius Hans, tailor of rabbinical robes; Veronica Parker Johns, owner, Seashells Unlimited, a Third Avenue Manhattan store; and David Turnowsky, counterman at Katz’s Deli–these are just some of the New […]