As a child of the recession, I don’t really have a lot of money to spend. On anything. But when I find myself with an extra ten dollars, it unequivocally goes toward a paperback from Melville House, home of the lusciously sexy Art of the Novella series.
Started ten years ago by founder Dennis Johnson, Melville house stands a fearless contradiction to the frantic fears of the publishing world which has been causing larger and smaller presses to throw themselves blindly into the Moloch of the giant online markets. Melville House’s philosophy is simple, and a direct assault on the churn-em-out ethos of Google and Amazon: let the thing speak for itself. Come to a book because you want to, not because it suddenly resembles a more exciting form of media.
The experience of opening a Melville House paperback, slight and brightly colored, ‘like candies in a bowl’, is a sensual one. The bare title in block lettering with one evocative, enigmatic quote on the back is an erotic challenge–it defies the one not to pick it up, not to give oneself to it fully–rapturously.
“We wanted a very stripped down experience,” says Johnson, “and yet we still wanted the thing to be beautiful. Most of all we want the thing to speak for itself. I mean, you don’t really need to know anything other than Tolstoy, for example. There’s really no need. It’s hard in this culture to let that happen, to just let that word, Tolstoy, tell you what this thing is. Everyone wants to shape it in a certain way for an audience and we basically say fuck that. There’s got to be enough people out there with enough wit to look at this thing and say, ‘Oh! Let’s open the cover’. I’ve got enough information. I can think for myself. We don’t include introductions or afterwords and things like that for the same reason. You don’t need someone telling you what to think about this. You figure it out. You’re not an idiot. Or maybe you are. In that case, good luck.”
Though it’s possible to become less of one, if you make it a habit of reading things that do speak for themselves. In this same line of thought, Melville House has come out with a new series this year called the Neversink Library, a collection of rare, previously unpublished classics in new translations.
“The Neversink series is not necessarily going to have a name that you’ll recognize. Who knows Irmgard Keun?” He holds up the first paperback in the series, Keun’s After Midnight, a 1937 novel of civilian life under Nazi rule. “She’s actually amazing, and this book has never been translated and printed in the U.S. before. I can’t believe that because this lady, she was a writer in the 20s and 30s in Germany, and she got on the Nazi shit list. They were going to arrest her and kill her so she escaped Germany. She escaped and staged her own suicide and snuck back into Germany under an assumed name and hid out for the length of the war because she just couldn’t bear to leave her country to these barbarians. I just think that’s one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever heard—she was writing about life under Hitler–a woman writer who wrote from the belly of the beast.There’s very little women’s writing about just normal life under the Nazis. After Midnight is about this kind of naive young girl who’s just trying to get to a party with her girlfriend but the Fuhrer has come to town to make a speech and the roads are closed and shit, and this is just fucking up her party life and it’s so funny but dark–it’s an amazing perspective. There’s no reason in the world that should be out of print.”
The democracy of Melville House’s method extends to the new series–Johnson encourages readers to send suggestions to Neversink (here). Even in our enlightened age, the thought of having direct communication with publishers about what actually gets printed is somewhat radical.
“We think we’re really helping culture.” says Johnson. “We’re trying to stay, we know there are a lot of you out there that are like us, that just really like to read and to understand the world through literary comprehension, and feel there is wisdom to be gotten from these other people and other places and other times.”
So BULLETT’s advice to you in the Summer months is not to spend your money on some huge, ridiculous glossy magazine for the beach (with the exception of our own, of course). Instead, be better. Be someone you’d actually want to have a conversation with.
Read Melville House.