You’ve probably picked up on this by now, but we at Notion are print obsessives. We sit in our office surrounded by piles of magazines, obsessing over inky smells and print jobs. It’s a bit geeky, but then why else would you work at a magazine? We’re not limited to magazines though. And with that in mind, here’s a new column, celebrating the independent book publishers, retailers and authors of Britain…
Obsessive readers lust after the over-looked, the forgotten and the elusive. It’s why we spend hours in second-hand bookshops and sleepless nights navigating Abebooks – the hope that we’ll stumble across something profound, languishing in obscurity. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of the find. The greatest publishers know how to tap into this lust and Massachusetts’ Wakefield Press are one of the best.
Founded in 2009, Wakefield specialize in the translation of short literary curiosities by both major and lesser know writers. These are works that have fallen off the radar. In some cases they’ve been overshadowed by the author’s greater works; in others, the writer’s entire oeuvre remains under read. If we imagine the world’s literature to be a cabinet of infinite drawers, then the folks at Wakefield are the eagle-eyed dealer, searching out hidden nooks and secret compartments. This is literary salvage and reanimation in action.
Wakefield divide their list into three intriguingly named strands: ‘Imagining Science’, ‘Wakefield Guidebooks’ and ‘The Library of Cruelty’. The latter includes fiction from French cult author Jean-Pierre Martinet and the surrealist Benjamin Peret, while the first two focus on imaginative non-fiction. These are scientific hypothesises and anthropological treatises transformed by the playful mind of the novelist – refutation, if any were needed, of the division between the arts and the sciences. Two examples provide a taste of the wonders on show.
Paul Scheerbart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine is ostensibly an account of the author’s attempts to invent such a thing. It’s a celebration of creativity born of experimentation, aspiration and disappointment. The imagined consequences of success are transformed into ‘fantasias of the future’ – of an end to toil, of the natural and man-made worlds illuminated by eternal light, of a canal linking Paris and Berlin. And, yet, Scheerbart perceives the darker uses to which his invention would be put – mechanized war, aerial battles and the humiliation of men as machines make them redundant. There is something of the seer about Scheerbart. When he predicts greater ‘interactivity’ in the future, leading to the breaking down of national boundaries, it’s difficult not to think of Twitter.
The second is an essential addition to every Notion readers’ bookcase – ‘A Treatise on Elegant Living‘ by caffeine pumped novelist Honore de Balzac. Leading where Dickens and Woolf were to follow, Balzac sets out the way in which clothes and interiors reveal the mind of the individual and the state of a nation. Consisting of a series of memorable axioms and an imagined encounter with Beau Brummell, this is an endlessly quotable jewel of a book. We learn that ‘anyone who does not frequently visit Paris will never be completely elegant” and that ‘retailers, businessmen, and teachers of the humanities fall outside the scope of elegant living’. Well tailored humour underlines, rather than undermines, Balzac’s argument that clothes speak and that what they say merits attention.
This is the triumph of Wakefield Press: the revelation that the playful and the serious are indivisible. Such wonderful content is well served by high quality design. Their taut paperbacks slip easily into the pocket and are a pleasure to hold. There are very few books that I feel impelled to display for their beauty alone but these demand to be shown off. And there are great things to come. November promises the release of Scheerbart’s novella, Lesabendio: An Asteroid Novel - the title alone has me rushing to copy the publication date into my diary.