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The Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month Club: January 2006

By posted at 8:52 am on January 9, 2006 0

I find myself wading through stacks of books, it seems, every month. I seek a way to read everything I’ve purchased, but for the most part I can’t. Nobody can, I suspect.

Sometimes I need structure. Sometimes I need to be willfully led to my next book. Sometimes I need something easy, like (for instance) a box set with a bunch of short books by a bunch of great authors. Something that I can systematically read one by one in order, from #1 to #70.

Penguin, upon celebrating their 70th anniversary, produced such a box – a literary “best-of” compilation, if you will. I became incredibly desirous of it. I searched all over the internet for a place to purchase it. I was a man possessed; no one could stand in my way – no one would dare hold me back from owning what looked like the greatest sampler in the history of publishing.

coverThe Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Collection includes all 70 of the publisher’s “Penguin Pockets,” a series that collected the best authors from Penguin’s existence and brought them to the masses at the relatively cheap price of £1.50 each. Each book features either an excerpt of a previously released novel or a collection of shorter unreleased stories. At roughly 55 pages each, the books are by no means meant to be an all encompassing look at their respective authors. Still, I used each one to further my horizons – to experience new writing that I might otherwise pass by, or even worse, be completely closed off to.

coverMy favorite, so far, is Jonathan Safran Foer’s The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning. Maybe I’m out of line here, but I found a lot of comparisons between Foer’s writing style and the immortal (at least, in the opinion of many reviewers) Dave Eggers. In fact, my first response to Foer’s writing was the same as it when I discovered to Eggers’ writing two years ago: “this guy is really, really good.”

The comparisons are obvious – both authors write in a fresh, unconventional way, and both are fueled by emotion – Eggers uses his own past and thoughts while Foer borrows from the imaginary, yet brilliant mind of a nine-year old, the mute thoughts of that child’s grandfather, and the lost voice of the boy’s German grandmother. It’s exciting in a way that only a true book lover can comprehend – it’s not just good, it’s different.

Yes, if you want to get technical, The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning is the Book of the Month. But really, I’m looking at this collection as a whole. It’s amazing in its completeness. Just to get your mouth watering, I’ll present a list of authors: Nick Hornby, P.D. James, Marian Keyes, Jorge Luis Borges, Roald Dahl, Jonathan Safran Foer, Homer, Paul Theroux, Anais Nin, Gustave Flaubert, Simon Schama, William Trevor, George Orwell, Michael Moore, Gervaise Phinn, Ali Smith, Sigmund Freud, Simon Armitage, Hunter S. Thompson, Tony Harrison, John Updike, Will Self, H.G. Wells, Noam Chomsky, Jamie Oliver, Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Anton Chekhov, P.G. Wodehouse, Franz Kafka, Dave Eggers, John Steinbeck, Alain de Botton – and that’s just the stuff that I readily recognize.

Really, there are only two reasons that any book collector shouldn’t own this collection. Number one – it’s expensive. It took me months to will myself into parting with the $150 it took to bring it over from the U.K. Number two – the books contained inside are only 55-pages long, and many of them are excerpts and previously released books. To this I say “Bah!” The covers alone are enough to make the box worth the price.

What this ended up leading me to was a complete waterfall of book-buying ideas. I can no longer say, with a straight face at least, that I don’t know what to read next. After all, it seemed as if every other book I read caused me to stop, jot down the authors name, and then search Powells.com for other selections. I bought the set to become a more well-read person, and I fear that it’s going to slowly sap the money from my billfold as each respective book’s influences gets added, one by one, to my “must buy” list. I tell you, it will be the end of me.

I’m very pleased with the selections offered in this collection. After such a long time, you get the feeling that a company was built to last, and Allen Lane (along with his Penguin empire) has proven that Penguin Publishing will be around until books no longer matter. The seventy books in The Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Collection span the company’s life, from Freud’s early work to Hunter Thompson’s last words. All in all, it’s a great set, for collectors, for people looking for a primer on Britain’s literary tastes, and for people who just like to read and aren’t afraid to stumble into something out of the ordinary.

Though, after seventy years, you’d expect the best, right?

Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood Pulp





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