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January 25th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

#FridayReads, Jan 24–Barry Lancet’s Gripping Thriller “Japantown”


From 1992-97, when I worked for Kodansha America, the US division of the major Japanese publisher, I had many interesting and talented colleagues, some of whom worked in New York, and others at the home office in Tokyo. My colleagues included both Westerners and Japanese. I didn’t often meet the ones who worked in Japan, but would occasionally see their names on inter-office memos and catalog materials. Among this group was Les Pockell, a lithe and witty fellow who after many years with the company in Tokyo came back to New York, working for Warner Books, later called Grand Central. He was also an anthologist of poetry and story collections. Sadly, Les died in 2010 at age 68. A Japanese colleague working in New York those years was my boss, Minato Asakawa, whose idea it was to publish Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, the autobiography of two African-American sisters, Sadie and Elizabeth Delany, then both more than 100 years old. It became a huge bestseller in hardcover and paperback, and was adapted into a Broadway play. Under Asakawa, I had the opportunity to acquire and publish many terrific books, such as A Diary of the Century: Tales from American’s Greatest Diarist by Edward Robb Ellis, and his one-volume hsitory, The Epic of New York City. Together, Asakawa and I published the Kodansha Globe series, which in many 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. 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 first book Dreams From My Father.

Another Westerner in the Tokyo contingent, though one I never met face-to-face was editor Barry Lancet. Last year, I read in PublishersMarketplace.com that Barry was going to debut as an author, publishing his first novel, a thriller. I made a mental note of that good news, and before I could get in touch with Barry to renew our old acquaintanceship, a mutual friend in the book business, publicity professional Jeff Rutherford, put Barry in touch with me. We exchanged personal and professional news and I congratulated him on publication of his first book. I was pleased then when in December I got a copy of Japantown from his editor at Simon & Schuster. After working through a lot of reading that piled up during the holidays, I started Japantown this week, and am totally engrossed by it. Here’s a rundown with no plot points you wouldn’t pick up in the first quarter of the novel.

The book is at first set in San Francisco where protagonist Jim Brodie works as a dealer in Asian antiquities** at the same time maintaining connection with the private detective agency his late father founded and ran in Tokyo, with many local employees. In the wake of the death of the younger Brodie’s wife Mieko in a mysterious and unsolved fire, Brodie’s a single dad living with his grade school age daughter, Jenny. Combining his two areas of expertise, Brodie is the new go-to-guy when the San Francisco Police Department find itself investigating a grisly mass murder with Japanese victims and characteristics: A Japanese family of five has been gunned down after dark in a public park. At the scene, Brodie finds only one clue, a paper artifact emblazoned with the same written character (kanji in Japanese) as was found at the scene of his wife’s death. Brodie doesn’t realize, though the reader knows, that even as he surveys the scene of the brutal killing he and Renna are being surveilled with lenses and cameras by unknown agents. Though not knowing the extent of the surveillance he’s under, he senses someone’s watching him, at his gallery and even at home with Jenny. With the obscure kanji in hand, Brodie undertakes an investigative trip to Japan, first putting Jenny in to the protective embrace of a police safe house. Once in Japan, the malign forces behind the killings begin taking aim at Brodie and one of his most trusted colleagues, Noda.

All the past work week I was looking for more time to read Japantown, and I’m glad it’s now the weekend, with some uninterrupted time for reading. Lancet’s writing is vivid and economical and the plotting assured. If you want to learn more about Lancet and his background, including some very good advice for aspiring writers, I suggest you visit his website or follow him on twitter @BarryLancet. I’ll post more about his book later, but for now I want to say I recommend it highly.

WEDNESDAY JAN 29 UPDATE I finished Japantown the other day and it was great to the last page! A totally gripping international thriller. I’ll post more about it later. Best thing is, I believe Barry Lancet’s already working on Book II.

** Antiquities dealer is a profession I’m partial to in mysteries, like the POT THIEF series for which I’m the agent, with J. Michael Orenduff’s six books which went on sale this week from Open Road. In the POT THIEF books, set in an Albuquerque, main character Hubie Schuze is a dealer in Native American ceramics, and a capable ceramicist himself. The books are memorably titled:  The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras,The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy,The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein,The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier,The Pot Thief Who Studied D. H. Lawrence, and The Pot Thief Who Studied Billy the Kid. As the titles suggest, Hubie’s reading and appreciation of classic texts by, and the venerable lives of scientists, writers, a chef and an outlaw, make for enjoyable mystery fiction.

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February 1st, 2013

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

#FridayReads, Feb. 1–Kem Nunn’s “Pomona Queen” & Mike Dash in Smithsonian on a Brave Siberian Family

#FridayReads, Feb. 1–Kem Nunn’s Pomona Queen, an engrossing California novel by the writer dubbed the originator of “surf-noir.” I had earlier read his best-known book “Tapping the Source,” and am glad I’m reading another. His sentence-making is worth savoring, and he creates out of luck characters you tend to care about, despite their dysfunction. Here, his protagonist is Earl Deen, descendant of an orange-growing family that’s seen better days. I see Nunn as a sort of Cormac McCarthy for southern California.Pomona Queen backPomona Queen

Also read and marveled over Mike Dash’s article in Smithsonian, on a Russian family, members of a sect persecuted by Stalin that fled in to Siberia’s vast reaches, and were discovered 40 years later, barely aware of civilization and oblivious to modern history. I blogged about the story earlier in the week, and have been sharing it widely. An amazing story, the kind of true tale I loved publishing in book form when I edited the Kodansha Globe series in the 1990s.

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June 8th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

Greeting Japanese Visitors at BEA, June 7

A few weeks ago, publishing friend, Kay Ohara–who like me, once worked for the Japanese publisher Kodansha–emailed me with this question: “I’m playing the role of tour guide for a group of Japanese booksellers/publishers. Their main interest is e-books . . . I was hoping you can give us a chance to ask what you’ve seen happening in the US book industry? Any time you can spare on June 7 at Javits?”

I happily agreed, made a note in my calendar, and forgot about it until yesterday when I got a text from Kay. “Are you at Javits? The delegation is having lunch right now. I wanted to know if you can meet with us in an hour or so.” Delegation–hmm? I thought. Fortunately, I wasn’t booked and we agreed to meet near the Bowker booth, at an entrance to the convention floor. I figured from there we could go find a few chairs outside in the food court, and I would try to answer their questions.

When I arrived, I saw that the group was much larger than I’d imagined, almost twenty men and women. Where was I going to take them? How would they hear me? What would I say to them? Luckily, I remembered that Kay is an excellent interpreter, so at least I had that going for me. Also lucky was the fact that next to the Bowker booth is a wide, common area, sort of a pass-through between two parts of the convention floor, with a kind of garage door and iron pillars to one side. I sized up the setting and moving with my back to this barrier, encouraged them to gather round in a semi-circle in front of me. I nodded to Kay and told her I’d offer them a quick rundown of my bookselling and publishing career, so they would understand my perspective on the business, after which I’d take their questions. I gave them my background in brief two-minute bursts, with Kay translating each segment–from Undercover Books, through the eight publishers I’ve worked for as an editor, with a special emphasis on my five years from 1992-97 with Kodansha America–when with my colleague Minato Asakawa, we created the Kodansha Globe series, devoted to cross-cultural titles, and the many Japanese and American colleagues I had then, such as Asakawa-san, Chikako Noma, daughter of the company’s president, and the late and dearly missed Leslie Pockell–on up through to my present days as curator and writer of this blog, independent editor, author representative, and consultant to such publishing enterprises as Speakerfile.

As Kay–who nowadays works as a publishing reporter for Japanese publications–had mentioned, their questions were largely about ebooks and I explained how they’ve reshaped and are continuing to reshape the U.S. book market. They asked me about author advances, and how the emergence of ebooks have affected them (on average, lowered them, I said); how print runs have been affected (ditto); and whether the majority of four-color printing for U.S. publishers is still being done in China (not sure, was my candid reply). At one point during the discussion, while Kay was interpreting something I’d said, I noticed several in the group were taking pictures of me. I took out my digital camera and began taking pictures of them, in a quick, panoramic continuum. The gallery of photos below is the spontaneous result.

Before we were finished, I distributed a handful of the 4×6 black&white postcard that Kyle and I’d had printed as a handout for BEA, and a fistful of my business cards. Soon, they were giving me their cards too, and we enjoyed a few minutes of very mannerly bowing and high-spirited exchanges of reciprocal good wishes for one another, with Kay providing introductions. The half-hour I spent with these foreign guests was a happy and diverting interlude on the final afternoon of BEA, a cross-cultural exchange I’m very glad I had the chance to be a part of, thanks to Kay Ohara, and her delightful “delegation.”

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May 4th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Technology, Science & Computers

Treasuring Early Natural History Books

Always happy to see a story involving my old hometown Cleveland’s book culture–Judith Rosen of Publishers Weekly reports that an 1886 book of natural history and ornithology, Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio, a copy of which was discovered in 1995 in the library of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, is now being republished by Princeton Architectural Press. PAP’s catalog listing for the book shows that the new edition has been retitled  America’s Other Audubon by Joy Kiser, the librarian who found one of twenty-five remaining copies of the rare book.

The author, Genevieve Jones, an amateur naturalist of her day, was inspired to create the book after seeing Audubon’s Birds of America paintings at the World’s Fair of 1876. She created sixty-eight original lithographs in making her book, which contemporaries described as “the most beautiful book ever produced in America.” Sadly, Jones died before it was finished and her family labored seven years to see to its completion, then underwriting printing and selling it by subscription. Only 90 copies were produced, and among the subscribers were Theodore Roosevelt and President Rutherford Hayes.

I love old natural history books, such as The Journal of A Disappointed Man by W.N.P. Barbellion, to which H.G. Wells contributed an Introduction upon its publication in 1919–a few months before the author died of multiple sclerosis at age thirty. Two sample entries from Barbellion’s youth, January 3, 1903: “Am writing an essay on the life-history of insects and have abandoned the idea of writing 0n ‘How Cats Spend their Time.'” and March 18, “Our Goldfinch roosts at 5:30. Joe’s kitten is a very small one. ‘Magpie’ is its name.”  I have an old Penguin copy of the book and a reprint published in 1989. Then there’s Fishes: Their Journeys and Migrations by Louis Roule, originally published in 1933, which I republished as a Kodansha Globe title in 1996, with a new Introduction by George Reiger of Field & Stream magazine. A reviewer of the original edition wrote, “Will please the nature student, the Izaak Walton enthusiast, or the reader who delights in believe-it-or-nots.” Living in an age of diminishing biological diversity with an accelerating pace of extinction, it is important to be aware of species and varieties that used to be common and are no more, or increasingly scarce, and I treasure these books for aiding that effort, decades after they were first published. That’s kind of miraculous.

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May 2nd, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Media, Blogging, Internet; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling; Urban Life & New York City

Correcting Politico and Drudge on “Dreams From My Father”

Happy to be quoted at length in this TPM story by Brian Beutler about the erroneous reporting by Politico, which mistakenly reported today that Barack Obama had failed in the earliest editions of Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance to acknowledge that he created composite characters in the book. I know otherwise because I published the first paperback edition of the book, in 1996, as I have written on this blog. I contacted TPM this afternoon to correct the record on the needlessly murky situation created by the false report that originated with today’s Politico story by Dylan Byers, then amplified on the Drudge Report. You may click on the TPM story or read it below.

A former executive of the original paperback publisher of President Obama’s 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father weighed in on Wednesday’s manufactured controversy over whether Obama represented fiction as fact by using composite characters in his autobiography.
“It is unfathomable to me how Dylan Byers of Politico could have overlooked the very plain disclaimer that the book carried from the very start,” Philip Turner said to TPM via email. Turner was an editorial executive with Kodansha America, which published the paperback version of Dreams from My Father in 1996.
“The reference to ‘compression’ appears on page ix of the Introduction of the book I published then, which I have on my desk as I write this message,” Turner says. “What’s more, the 1996 paperback was an exact reprint with no changes of the hardcover edition that had been published a year earlier….” (emphasis added).
The fact that Obama used composite characters in his memoir — and that he disclosed this in the book’s introduction — was widely known before it was mentioned again in an excerpt from David Maraniss’ upcoming Obama biography, published Wednesday in Vanity Fair. It even featured prominently in a 2007 story by Politico’s top political reporter Mike Allen.
But on Wednesday, Politico published a story that made no reference to the disclaimer, suggesting Obama had misled his own readers. That piece has since been appended with a correction, but still reads as an indictment of the President.

For the record, this is the entire comment I sent to TPM which they quote from above:

As the first paperback publisher of “Dreams From My Father,” in 1996, I feel obliged to confirm everything in the above TPM story by Benjy Sarlin. The reference to “compression” appears on page ix of the Introduction of the book I published then, which I have on my desk as I write this message. What’s more, the 1996 paperback was an exact reprint with no changes of the hardcover edition that had been published a year earlier. For the record, I was editor-in-chief of Kodansha America then, and we acquired the rights to publish the book from Random House, whose imprint Times Books had done the hardcover. In the early 2000s Kodansha’s license to publish the paperback expired and rights reverted to Random House. Their Three Rivers Press imprint republished it in paperback in 2004 with a new preface by the author, and yet his original Introduction, with the disclaimer about “compression” remained in the book then.

It is unfathomable to me how Dylan Byers of Politico could have overlooked the very plain disclaimer that the book carried from the very start. I wonder if commenter @wpilderback isn’t right in his explanation below: “This was an opportunity for them to remind people that Obama slept with a white woman, and nothing more.” Even if Byers just made a stupid and avoidable mistake, I’m sure Drudge was only too happy to perpetuate the error.       

For readers interested in further information on the paperback edition I published, I refer you to a personal essay I published last month on my blog The Great Gray Bridge, via this link:  http://philipsturner.com/2012/03/11/dreams-father-circa-1995-96/

 

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March 11th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner Book Productions; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

“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 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.

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.

The books looked terrific with a uniform design created by Marc Cohen, who had earlier designed the Vintage Internationals series. The 4-color brochure we produced to share with reviewers and booksellers for Globe’s first season in 1994 promised that Kodansha Globe books would go “Straight to the heart of an ever-changing world.”

One day in 1995 Deborah Baker came in my office to tell me about a new hardcover that she was excited about from the Times Books division of Random House.
Written by a young state senator from Illinois, she said it was a chronicle of his biracial upbringing and a memoir of how he had struggled to come to terms with the ambiguous legacy of his complicated African father. She said the narrative opened with the author’s discovery of the father’s death after a road accident in Africa. After Deborah gave me an advance copy, I began reading it and vividly recall encountering the book for the first time: a lucid, poised voice; a fluent telling of emotionally-laden events that cut back and forth across time; an accomplished work of self-revelation with an authorial eye fixed on the larger picture of what his family’s story meant in an America that was becoming more variegated with cross-cultural influences. Within days I told Deborah I agreed with her, that yes, we ought to make an offer to Random House to acquire the paperback rights to Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama. The book would be published as a trade paperback in the Kodansha Globe series in August 1996, under a standard seven-year license, meaning that Kodansha would have rights to the book until 2003, unless it the agreement was renewed.

Once our offer was accepted by Random House I encouraged Deborah to get in touch directly with the author, and find out if perhaps Kodansha might have a shot at his next book, a common hope among paperback reprinters in those days, even if it often went unfulfilled. Deborah reported back that she had indeed spoken with him, and that he hoped to publish more books, but would probably next turn to writing fiction. She said this Chicago politician and attorney’s writerly ambition led him to hope he might follow in the footsteps of another prominent Chicago attorney, and bestselling novelist, as Deborah reported that he’d told her he wanted to become “the next Scott Turow.” Since we didn’t publish fiction at Kodansha America, our notion of publishing the follow-up to Dreams From My Father seemed unlikely to go anywhere.

I was really proud to have Dreams From My Father on the Globe list, as I was proud of every book in the quality program. It ultimately sold out its first printing of 6,000 copies, but no external event ever occurred that would have made sales soar. After leaving Kodansha in 1997, I took a new editorial position, oddly enough, with Times Books of Random House. Over the next three years I worked as the liason to the New York Times, creating books with departments at the newspaper like the Times Book Review, the Real Estate section, City, Arts & Leisure, and Cooking. I also assembled my own list of nonfiction titles with books like Dead Run, about an arguably innocent man on Virginia’s Death Row, with an Introduction by William Styron. In my third year at Random House the license under which Random House operated Times Books ended, and overnight I became attached to Crown Publishing, another Random House division that would be taking over all Times Books titles. After six months as a Crown editor, I left for another job, with Carroll & Graf. During these years, I didn’t often think of Dreams From My Father or its author, at least not until John Kerry invited Obama, by now a candidate for a U.S. senate seat in Illinois, to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention. Around the time he gave what turned out to be an electrifying speech I began seeing a new edition of Dreams From My Father stacked up in bookstores. Kodansha’s seven-year license had expired and Crown, taking over all of Times Books’ former titles, had reissued the book with a new Introduction by the author, under an enterprising editor named Rachel Klayman, who would also commission what became Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope. According to the data service that tracks book sales, to Crown’s and Rachel’s credit their edition of Dreams From My Father has up to this week sold 1,801,881 copies.

In the years since 2004, when the book was reissued and became a multi-year bestseller, I’ve had many occasions to marvel at the odd chain of circumstance and coincidence which has connected me to Barack Obama and his first book, often when it appears in the news. For instance, I saw State Senator Obama’s ambitions for bestsellerdom in a new light when during the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton and her campaign accused candidate Obama of having wanted to be president since he was in kindergarten. I knew better: at one point he’d really wanted to become a bestselling novelist; with the college loan debt he’d still had hanging over him in 1995 this seemed quite genuine. During the 2008 campaign, strident right-wingers tried to convince voters that the chimerical Bill Ayers had ghost-written the book, when publishing people in New York knew that he had written every word of it, with editorial help prior to its hardcover publication from editor Henry Ferris, as explored in a May 2008 New York Times article by Janny Scott, which quoted Peter Osnos (who had been the publisher at Times Books), and Deborah Baker and me. The reporting for that story must have triggered a great deal of personal curiosity in Scott, because in May 2011 she published her own book,  A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother.

The latest flashback to 1995 occurred this week when the website buzzfeed.com ran a shot of a New York magazine ad for an August 1995 autographing at Barnes & Noble’s Astor Place store in Manhattan: “Meet author Barack Obama when he reads from Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, a stirring memoir of growing up as the son of a white American mother and a black African father.” This would have been right around the time that we were acquiring the paperback rights for Kodansha America. I didn’t know about the B&N signing or I might have gone to hear him and introduce myself. I’ve never heard anything since 1995 about Barack Obama writing a novel, but maybe that new literary frontier will be reserved for his post-presidency; I know I’d be keenly interested in reading it.

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January 18th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

Kodansha Returning to U.S. Publishing Scene

Excited to see a brief item explaining that Kodansha, the Japanese publishing house I worked for from 1992-97, is planning their return to the U.S. scene. In 1996, as part of the Kodansha Globe series we published the first paperback edition of then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama’s debut book, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.

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January 4th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

400 Years Later, More Room for Books at Oxford University

With my sister Pamela Turner, our late brother Joel Turner, and our parents, Sylvia and Earl, also now sadly deceased–I operated Undercover Books from 1978-1985 (the family continued to operate the business for many years after I left the business, including a very early, pre-Amazon entry into online bookselling). At its peak, Undercover was a three-store indie chain in the suburban environs of Cleveland, Ohio, and the city’s downtown. Two of our very best customers were Blackwell’s Bookshops and the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. Improbable as it might seem that a venerable bookseller like Blackwell’s, which in addition to its Oxford stores, had branches throughout the UK, would need another bookseller, and one far away in the American Midwest, to supply them with bulk quantities of single titles, they very much needed a high-service U.S. bookseller like us. In this pre-digital age before ebooks, professors and students of the storied university would make special orders with Blackwell’s for titles in print only with U.S. publishers, like particular editions of Sophocles from Princeton University Press and Catullus from the Harvard University Press’s Loeb Classics Library. So they turned to us. It was lucrative trade, the sort of bulk business that booksellers relish. Along with the regular orders from Blackwell’s,  the Bodleian also submitted regular orders for obscure titles available only from U.S. publishers, like medical texts, engineering manuals, and economics treatises. Thanks to some excellent transatlantic shipping services, and the prodigious packing talents of the skilled Sylvia, Blackwell’s and the Bodleian remained key customers for many years. At one point, Pamela and Joel made a business trip to the UK, calling on their loyal Oxford clients.

In the mid-90s, a decade after I’d begun working as an editor and publisher, I also toured England and Scotland, with my artist wife, Kyle Gallup. We made a visit to Oxford, first seeing the popular anthropologist Desmond Morris, whose classic The Human Zoo I had republished in the Kodansha Globe series. Morris was a genial host, driving us around Oxford in his silvery Rolls-Royce, purchased I imagined with the royalties from his international bestsellers, The Naked Ape, and The Human Zoo.

The next part of this bookman’s holiday was to pay a call on the quintessentially English-named A.J. Flavell, librarian at the Bodleian and Undercover’s key contact there. Looking a bit like a latter-day Mr. Chips, clad in full tweed, Mr. Flavell gave us a tour of the library. We learned that the Bodleian‘s origins dated back to the 14th century, and around 1600 in the location we visited that day. He pointed out pneumatic tubes that carried message slips and patrons’ circulation requests–conjuring visions of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”–systems I’d also seen in old hardware stores in small American towns. Next he walked us down a stairway into a subterranean world where thousands of linear feet of shelving ran for miles under all the major buildings of Oxford University and the whole town, housing the millions of books the Bodleian holds. Below depths, it was like the catacombs of ancient Rome, though there was nothing sinister about this storage house, just acres of shelved books, narrow aisles, a dusty concrete floor and lots of bright lights. Kyle and I both thought how easy it could be to get lost in this warren, and find oneself–like Admiral Richard Byrd in Alone: An Antarctic Adventure, another Kodansha Globe title–scrambling for an escape hatch back to safety. But, the unflappable Flavell showed no hesitation as he led us around the stacks.

All these memories came flooding back this morning when I found online an article originating in the Oxford Times, headlined “Bodleian Library Gets an Upgrade.” Andrew Ffrench reports,

“Just over a year ago, library staff began transporting books to the South Marston site from Oxford, from its store in Nuneham Courtenay, and from a Cheshire salt mine, which was also being used to store part of its vast collection. The book move, the biggest since the library opened in 1602, was completed on schedule. One milestone was December 23, when the seventh million volume was shelved. The library, one of the oldest in Europe, and known to scholars as the ‘Bodley’ or ‘the Bod’, has 11 million volumes and is only second in size to the British Library. It is one of a handful of legal deposit libraries, which are required to keep a copy of every new book published. The completion of the move is part of the Bodleian’s plan to free up space and make its treasures more accessible for the public by providing larger display areas. Earlier this year, a collection of Franz Kafka’s letters to his sister went on display. The Treasures of the Bodleian exhibition included part of Jane Austen’s first draft of her unpublished novel The Watsons, which went on show for the first time since it was bought at auction earlier this year. Marco Polo’s travel manuscript from the 14th century, the Codex Mendoza, and a handwritten draft of war poet Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ also went on display. “

Although I doubt the venerable Bodleian will entirely abandon their underground shelving, I am delighted to know that they will at last have sufficient space for their prodigiously vast collection. I take pleasure in imagining that that collection still contains more than a few books supplied to them by Undercover Books.

The Radcilffe Camera, Bodleian Library