Saturday, May 15, 2010

How to Buy Better Books

I read liner notes. It's why I don't download music: you don't get the booklet that comes with the CD or the moment that comes with unfolding the vinyl. Plus, you don't learn too much about the music without those notes. More importantly, you never get to see who played on the album, who wrote the songs or who produced it. And knowing those things are the keys to finding great music.

You know how it works. You carefully memorize the producers, record label, players, songwriters. Then you head into the music store and look for another album containing those names, some of them, any of them. Heck, if it worked once, it's bound to work again. This is how I got into jazz. I memorized the players on one album, especially on the Blue Note label which listed them on the back, and went searching for other albums with those players, or groupings of them. If Grant Green and Ben Dixon worked well on "Iron City" then they will work well on Big John Patton's "Let's Roll." If Gram Parsons' backing band on "Grievous Angel" can rip like that, they must certainly elevate The King on "Live at the International." And they did. Soul music works the same way. Anything on the Stax label will have their famous house band, how could it go wrong? Likewise, Motown, Hi Records or Fania.

Ever think of buying books like that?

We get a lot of requests for "books like..." or "another book by....or one like he/she wrote." We have no problem helping you out on those questions or pointing you in the right direction, after all, that's one of our more favorite parts of the job. But we are also here to help make you better book buyers.

On that note, there are some excellent small presses that are out there, who operate like the best record labels. They have good, tight collections, to the point where any book they are putting out is going to be worth your time. Trying to fill aspects of the publishing world that aren't being filled by the majors, or bringing back to life long-lost classics, these presses offer fantastic books by authors you may or may not have heard of. Some specialize in depth in a certain type of genre, others cover more ground. In the interest of keeping you searching and digging through the stacks, instead of the flash/bang trip, here's a list of some of these presses:

Akashic Books, Bitter Lemon Press, New Pulp Press, Archipelago Books, NYRB, Europa Editions, Busted Flush, Underland Press, Melville House, Dalkey Archive, Soho, new Directions, City Lights, Bleak House Books.

Next time you're in, carry that list with you. Look down the spines of the books and pay attention to the publisher instead of the author or title. You'll find some absolute gems this way. And isn't that what buying books is all about?

--William Hastings

4 comments:

Lauren B. Davis said...

Terrific post! I've been saying for ages it's the smaller presses that will be the salvation of literature -- along with the independent bookstores. I look forward to popping into your shop the next time I'm in Buck's county. (I live in Princeton.)

rhonda Hughes said...

Excellent blog post. I could not agree more! I'd like to introduce Hawthorne Books to your list of small presses worth checking out. -Rhonda Hughes, www.hawthornebooks.com

Rhonda909 said...

Excellent blog post. I discovered Black Sparrow years ago and read their entire catalog! I would like to add Hawthorne Books to your list of publishers to check out. www.hawthornebooks.com.

Best, Rhonda Hughes

johanna said...

Thanks for including us in your list of good indies! We appreciate it.
Johanna/Akashic Books