Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Founder's Tale, Round Two

Artists and artisans of every possible stripe, editors, publishers, gallerists, curators, producers of theatricals: all are (too often unsung) entrepreneurs, who seed and nurture the arts, creating the ecosystem that parallels, critiques and reinforces the mainstream economy.  The Lobster & Canary returns to one of our favorite themes:  the Founder's Tale (click here for our example-filled March 4th, 2012 post, which inspired a round table we led at Arisia in January this year).

I am especially struck by the proliferation of small literary presses in the U.S.A. over the past two decades, at a time when major media conglomerates have acquired and consolidated so many of the older imprints (not in itself a bad thing, but an organizational trend that has logically favored least-common-denominator blockbusters as opposed to bolder, experimental, and decidedly off-beat productions).  Today's small-press founders are the latest descendants of Plantin and Manutius-- long live the Republic of Letters!

Jeffrey Levine, founder of Tupelo Press, tells the story of how he got started, in terms that I am sure are essentially identical to those of his fellow small-press creators:

"So, in 1999 I created this 'job' out of, well, nothing.  I knew what I wanted to do but I didn't really know very much about doing it. Strictly speaking, that's not really true. It would be more true to say that I didn't really know anything about it, except, I felt I had one important talent: that I could trust my judgment about what great writing looked- and sounded-  like. (Every entrepreneur needs a healthy dollop of ego.) So, I rented a little office on the second floor of the U.S. Post Office in Walpole, NH, and I found a desk and a chair, a telephone (remember those), a computer and a printer and set about learning my craft."  [For the entire interview, click here].

Why isn't this flavor of the Founder's Tale featured more prominently in the general business press, made into case studies for the business schools, held up as an exemplar at the venture capital pitch fests?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Golden Age of Print

Andrew Losowsky, senior books editor at the Huffington Post, recently observed that print culture--far from dying as a result of the digital revolution--is expanding, improving and engaging:

"I'm a believer that we're entering a golden age of print.  When something loses its monopoly, it allows it to express what makes it special"  (quoted in Print, 67.5, Oct. 2013, p. 46).

I could not agree more.  I am in a (physical) bookstore at least once a week, and browse their online equivalents every day--and am deliciously overwhelmed by the choices, the inventive qualities, the lure and the blandishments of covers and fonts, the million voices whispering, illustrations leaping, every genre and new ones hybridized every week, deep and beautiful writing on worthy themes, cracking good yarns to liven up a subway ride, higher up and further in on entirely novel continents...

...and the old is refreshed and kept in print, and much that was lost is reclaimed inexpensively online...

Monday, October 14, 2013

Alexander Is Lowered Into The Sea: The Archaeology of Story

[Image & Artwork Copyright Held By The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; Image Used Here For Purposes of Commentary Only, i.e., Within Fair Use; Museum Link Is Here]

The picture above spoke to me from across the room yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum, a small item amidst the panoply at the newly opened exhibition Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800 .  See the exhibit if you can--it is the sort of bravura display that only the Met and a few others (the V & A, for instance) around the world can do, expertly melding history, anthropology, connoisseurship and aesthetics, and over-brimming the viewer's eye with one exquisite piece after another.   Enmesh your gaze in the glories of palempores on acres of bed-linens, of rinceaux patterns on bonnets and evening gowns, of pheasants and lions cavorting among the original paisley-fronds, of chintz before the word took on its present-day meaning.

The picture above the Met placed as a visual footnote or supplemental (having to do with the contrast between the Mughal headgear and the hats on the Portuguese sailors) yet I found myself more deeply drawn in the more I studied it.  "Alexander Is Lowered Into The Sea," it is titled, being a folio from a Khamsa (a quintet) by Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, with the painting itself attributed to Mukunda.  The Met tells us that, "while underwater, [Alexander] will receive a visit from an angel who will foretell his death."

I did not recall any such story attached to Alexander the Great when I stumbled through Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch (even in translation!) my freshman year of college.  How curious, this legendry revolving around a primitive but apparently functional diving bell.  Alexander--it turns out (but why was I surprised, since Aristotle was his tutor?)--had an interest in such things, if only to thwart any submarine defenses of the maritime cities he besieged.  Click here and here for more.

Alexander invaded Persia in 334 BCE, and India in 327.  Amir Khusrau  (1253-1325 CE) wrote the poem illustrated above some 1,600 years after Alexander's death, one flower in the great garden of verse planted and pruned during the Delhi Sultanate.  (For more on Amir Khusrau, one of the most influential and creative minds in medieval Eurasia, reputed to have invented--among other things--the sitar and the tabla, click here).  

Mukunda, or some other master-artist of Akbar the Great's court, painted the scene another three centuries after Khusrau wrote the poem.  One can imagine Akbar, with his syncretistic worldview and cosmopolitan sense of majesty, enjoying both poem and picture very much.

Four centuries after Akbar's time, we are admiring the painting and reading the story yet again-- and perhaps recollecting how much is shared across millennia and across seemingly disparate cultures.  Alexander founded cities as well as destroyed them, cities still important today.  While echoes of his battles at Gaugamela and on the banks of the Hydaspes live on in scenes such as those written by Tolkien for his men of the West confronting the elephants ridden by the Haradrim ("the men of the south"), we might also bring forth other bits of Alexandrine lore, those more tied to cross-cultural understanding and the pacific quest for revelation.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Memorials to the First Voyage

Barbara Remington's Covers for the 1965 Ballantine Paperback Edition of LOTR (photo of copies from the 21st printing, 1968; from the Mike is Bored blog, click here for more.  Lobster & Canary does not hold copyright in the images or original artwork in this post; their presentation here falls under fair use, is for purposes of commentary).

We visited the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle last weekend, a compendium of great favorites, uniting Jimi Hendrix and Harry Potter under one roof.   A loving, Bowie-esque hodgepodge of drum kits and Daleks, light sabers and Stratocasters, complete with Captain Kirk's chair from the deck of the Enterprise and Neo's long black coat from The Matrix, the EMP was thronged with pilgrims. 

The first exhibit is an homage to modern fantasy and mythmaking.   And on the hall as you enter are two original paintings:  Barbara Remington's LOTR poster, and the map of Middle Earth by Pauline Baynes.

I gazed long and longingly at the two, transported instantly to a young reader making his first voyages on the bark of Tolkien's story.  Recursive memorials to immersion and the gaining of identity through the loss of time and self.  Places of memory about places we imagine and then inhabit.  Recollection of my own paperbacks with their Remington covers (a slightly later printing of the 1965 edition, the 22nd or 23rd perhaps, from 1969, worn to just the same crinkled state as those pictured above, ultimately read right off the book itself, bound with a rubber band, all now lost).  Memories of the sunlight in the front-room on Concord Place where I first read these, and of the smell of the back-stairs (a slightly ominous corridor, like the entrance to The Old Forest), the solitude of my bedroom where a small lamp provided enough light to read by, late late into the night, but not quite enough to dispel the whispers of the Nazgul from the encompassing dark.  

"Memory installs remembrance within the sacred," to quote Pierre Nora.  "Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images and objects."

P.S.  This summer I read Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance, a marvelous 2009 anthology edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois.  Vance, like Tolkien (and Le Guin and Peake), looms very large in the minds and memories of many modern fantasy authors; I found Vance only a little later than I discovered Tolkien and Le Guin, and can see and feel where I was when I first followed Cugel the Clever on his adventures and first shuddered at the appearance of Chun the Unavoidable.  Besides the great affection for Vance evident in their pastiches, nearly every author in the collection -- and the line-up is a "who's who" of the current field-- recalls in intimate detail when they first encountered Vance's writing, right down to the specifics of the editions.  For instance, Mike Resnick writes: "One of the very first science fiction books I bought as a kid was Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, in its original paperback edition published by Hillman."  Phyllis Eisenstein remembers paying "75 cents for that Lancer paperback with the odd leathery cover.  Only many years later did I learn that this was its first printing since the scarce 1950 Hillman edition."  Lucius Shepard:  "I first encountered Jack Vance's work in junior high, when I read a paperback edition of The Dying Earth sheathed in one or another textbook (I hated mathematics, so most often I read it during math class)."  Glen Cook speaks of forking over the "outrageous sum" of 75 cents for the Lancer edition at the independent bookstore next to a tavern he frequented.  Tanith Lee still has the English Mayflower edition her mother bought her decades ago, "though by now the pages are brown and many are loose inside the cover."  Dan Simmons stumbled into The Dying Earth and other Vancean worlds in stacks of his brother's Ace Doubles and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, when he was 12, in his uncle's third-floor apartment on North Kildare Avenue just off Madison Street in Chicago, "with me sprawled on the daybed...under the open windows with the heat and street noises coming in...reading Jack Vance."   Howard Waldrop:  "I remember sitting in a green and white lawn chair under a magnolia the summer of 1962, reading...The Dying Earth."   Martin was ten or eleven years old when he "grabbed one of those Ace Doubles with the colorful red-and-blue spines off the spinner rack in the candy store at First Street and Kelly Parkway in Bayonne, New Jersey."  Elizabeth Hand movingly describes "the single most intense reading experience of my life," a rainy Saturday alone in a rented beachfront cottage in Maine the summer before she started high school, devouring doughnuts she had bought with her father and a cover-less copy of  The Dying Earth found in the bottom of a box her mother had brought home from a library book sale.  As  Hand says, speaking I think for most of us:  "It was my madeleine."