Very Fine Writers in Bite-Size Pieces

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), January 25, 2004 | Go to article overview

Very Fine Writers in Bite-Size Pieces


Byline: Paul Denison The Register-Guard

On one level, the new Vintage Readers series, launched earlier this month, is nothing more than a nifty marketing and sales tool for Vintage Books: anthologies of its own writers' work, in inexpensive trade paperback editions.

The books are not meant to be definitive. For instance, if you'd like to compare Joan Didion's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" (1968) with her "Where I Was From" (2003), you can't.

Her reader includes no excerpts from either book. The pleasingly plump Viking Portable series several decades ago was much more ambitious but bumped into the same obvious limitation: You can't republish something if you don't have (or can't get) the rights.

However, Vintage has published enough work by each of these authors to make these readers reasonably representative. And they're certainly enticing, with strong black-and-white cover photographs, attractive type, bright paper, digestible length (210 pages or less) and low price ($9.95).

Each book begins with a brief bio and a complete bibliography and ends with one-paragraph summaries of Vintage Books by the author. A sales tool, for sure, but from a reader's perspective not a bad idea at all.

Most of the authors in the first batch of 12 books (more will be published next fall) are very well known: Langston Hughes, Alice Munro, Sandra Cisneros, James Baldwin, Vladmir Nabokov, V.S. Naipaul, Barry Lopez, Joan Didion, Haruki Murakami. Others may be less familiar: Oliver Sacks, Martin Amis and Richard Ford.

The Vintage Readers make it easy to check out an author you've never read before, to refresh your memory and catch up with more recent works by favorite authors, to sample novels without having to buy the whole book, to get a good taste - more than an appetizer but less than a full meal - of each author, dead or alive. You could easily build a book club for busy people around such a series.

An hour or so spent surfing these books yielded several types of small pleasures, such as:

Sampling a Lopez book not yet read.

In "The American Geographies" from "About This Life," this National Book Award-winner - who lives in Oregon - sounds a reasoned, lyrical and passionate alarm about the "promulgation of false geographies" that carry the seeds of ruin:

"The geographies of North America, the myriad small landscapes that make up the national fabric, are threatened - by ignorance of what makes them unique, by utilitarian attitudes, by failure to include them in the moral universe, and by brutal disregard. A testament of minor voices can clear away an ignorance of any place, can inform us of its special qualities; but no voice, by merely telling a story, can cause the poisonous wastes that saturate some parts of the land to decompose, to evaporate. This responsibility falls ultimately to the national community, a vague and fragile entity to be sure, but one that, in America, can be ferocious in exerting its will."

Re-reading a passage from Baldwin's "Another Country," the one in which Rufus and Leona have angry and fearful black-white sex on an apartment balcony during a party, and he begins "to feel a tenderness for Leona which he had not expected to feel. …

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