Palace of books
My work as a consulting editor for Oxford University Press takes me occasionally to Oxford. When I’m there I like to visit Blackwell’s on Broad Street. In particular, I like to browse the shelves on the book trade.
Logically, Heffers (my local branch of Blackwell’s) should have an equivalent shelf, though if it does I haven’t found it.
It was in Broad St. that I discovered several of the books reviewed on this blog. The most recent purchase is Palace of books by Roger Grenier (translated by Alice Kaplan).
In a previous post (‘On the buying of books: the role of production values‘, 16 Feb 2012), I discussed books where the aesthetics values had prompted me into a making a purchase. Palace of books was one of those books.
The front cover is tasteful, balancing the white of the top half of the cover against the colour of the illustration.
The book has red end papers, plus head and tail bands.
The text design is invitingly spacious.
And, praise be, the colour of the paper is a relaxing cream.
I wasn’t sure whether the book had been shelved by a particularly well-informed assistant (one who knew that Grenier worked for Gallimard and therefore shelved the book with those about publishing) or by a slapdash one (who saw ‘books’ and concluded ‘book trade’).
In truth it should have been on the adjacent shelves devoted to literary essays, since Grenier writes as a literary reader and author, rather than as a publisher (though occasionally he describes himself as an ‘editor’).
In the foreword, the translator, Alice Kaplan, writes: “Never didactic, never pedantic, Grenier takes us by the hand gently, and without really realizing what is happening, we come away enlightened. Palace of books answers a real need and demand for nonacademic criticism, and for what Francine Prose has called…the pleasures of ‘reading like a writer’.(p. viii).
I would say the book isn’t consistently as good as Kaplan makes it sound. Occasionally (in ‘Waiting for eternity’, for example), the essays read rather thinly, like a mere exercise in joining quotations (mainly from French and American literature). But certainly at their best (in ‘Unfinished’, for example) the essays do exactly what Kaplan claims.
And she is right to allude to Prose’s phrase: there is an implicit creativity in the thematic links that Grenier explores.