The Overlooked and Underappreciated: Melville House’s Neversink Library

One my favorite bits from Michael Chabon’s guest stint on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at the Atlantic was actually picked out in J. Robert Lennon’s post-mortem over at Ward Six. There, Lennon notes Chabon’s comparison of novel-writing vs. blogging—“Novelist time is reptile time; novelists tend to be ruminant and brooding, nursers of ancient grievances, second-guessers, Tuesday afternoon quarterbacks, retrospectators, endlessly, like slumping hitters, studying the film of their old whiffs”—and buffs up the definition a little:

[O]ne thing I like about litblogging, as opposed to, say, tech blogging, is that it specifically doesn’t depend upon timeliness and close attention. It can be contemplative. One can write about things published thirty years ago, that nobody is making any money on. One can blog in reptile time, as he puts it.

I think it’s a great term, myself, and the idea of blogging in reptile time is close to my heart. Reading, too—it’s frustrating that the more new and current work I find myself plugged in to, the less time I have for the old stuff, the $2 paperbacks bought on the street and favorite books passed along by friends and things I read so long ago they’re probably entirely different stories now. I make time for them, but it’s not as much as I would like. Though I’m very happy where I am now, here in the middle of the soup, I look at my reading lists from ten years ago and feel a twinge of nostalgia for the way I read then, without the benefit of any hype or enthusiasm other than the most personal kind. It’s been a while since I didn’t give a thought to what I was going to read next, or after that, unless I had a library due date looming. A lot of what found me in those days, one way or another, was old.

Of course even then obscure and out-of-print titles were finding chancees for rebirth. New York Review Classics started issuing their sleek versions of “nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of” in 1999, and there are countless others—if I list a handful, I’ll end up leaving out twice as many. But for those of us who honed our reading habits grabbing books at random from our parents’ shelves, tag sales, and the wire racks in the library—the library’s mass market paperback section always had the weirdest stuff—there will always be that one nostalgic book, fondly remembered and still unavailable.

Which is why I appreciate the sidebar on the NYRB Classics website that asks, “Is there an out-of-print book that you wish were available again? Tell us about it.” And I appreciate that as the conversation has gotten broader and easier to participate in, more people are having it. Last fall Critical Mass asked members of the National Book Critics Circle to weigh in on what out-of-print titles they’d like to see republished, and an eclectic batch of results have been rolling in over the past month, all of them worth taking a look at.

The newest addition to this particular exchange is Melville House’s Neversink Library, named both for the noble ship in Herman Melville’s White Jacket and, even more, for the optimism inherent in bringing back work that needs a second life:

The Neversink Library champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored. They are issued in handsome, well-designed editions at reasonable prices in hopes of their passing from one reader to another—and further enriching our culture.

There’s not one untrue statement in that paragraph—especially the “handsome” part. It’s a gorgeous collection, designed to spark an adventurous reader’s curiosity and a curious reader’s sense of adventure. Over at Caustic Cover Critic, Melville House art director Christopher King talks about the work he’s been doing there, and I have to agree that his aesthetic and the press’ general zeitgeist are a great fit:

Any designer who’s ever faced the firing squad (a.k.a., packaging meetings) could appreciate what a relief it is to seek approval only from our two publishers, who are, remarkably, willing to indulge just about all of my harebrained schemes, and who are almost never heard to say, “make the title bigger.”

Especially when you’re talking about titles that most readers won’t be familiar with before picking up the book, I’m grateful not to be yelled at. And sure enough, there on their sidebar, the conversation continues: “We’re looking for titles to add to the Neversink Library. If there’s a book you love that’s out of print let us know.” Surely Like Fire readers have some overlooked and underappreciated titles kicking around. In the meantime, I’m going to get my hands on some of the ones they’ve already revived.

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5 Comments to The Overlooked and Underappreciated: Melville House’s Neversink Library

  1. January 29, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Lisa,
    You’ve written some fine things here at Like Fire. But this has to be one of the finest. Great, great stuff!

  2. Julie Carter's Gravatar Julie Carter
    January 29, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Great, Lisa. Another series of books I’m going to want to collect! I love the NYRB Classics, and have been happy with each one I’ve read. I’ll definitely be trying some of the Neversink books!

  3. Miss T's Gravatar Miss T
    January 29, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Great post! I’ve never been one to read mainly what’s current. I tend to wait till the hype dies down, and then pick and choose in my own eccentric manner, so I relate quite well to your love of oddball books bought on the street and old library books.

  4. nbm's Gravatar nbm
    January 30, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Two of the three books I returned to the library yesterday were NYRB editions, and I made a point to note it; let’s see if these Neversinks turn out as reliable. But, as I hear you hint, there’s something to the actual older book in hand: I’m now reading a 1985 mass-market pb of Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing and it’s interestingly both the same as and different from reading it in the handsome uniform four-volume University of Chicago set of the Dance to the Music of Time with Poussin’s Seasons dancing across the spines. I wish I could show you the cover image — highly amusing.

  5. Anonymous's Gravatar Anonymous
    February 2, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Part Two Working with Your Brain.by Jay Lambert MSW LCSW NHAC..Last month I wrote about the overall structure of the human brain and explained in very basic detail the three layers that make up our brain – namely the reptilian mammalian and primate layers. Knowing how these different parts fit together – and how that doesnt always work out so well – is key to understanding so much of our own behavior…OUR INNER REPTILE..Weve all heard of the inner child that part of us that remembers our youth and can go back to that time and place in our minds and hearts. Even though we are all grown up we sometimes find ourselves thinking and feeling like we used to as a child especially when we are in surroundings or situations that remind us of those times.

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