Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mentor Books!

In any ongoing feature on great series of books, a place must be made for the great Mentor Books that flourished in the 1950s and '60s in America and the UK. These books could be lost in the sea of competing scholarly texts of those more literate days, but they were built with love and care, some obviously designed to be adopted as school textbooks, others with far less chance of being adopted as anything at all.

Now, unexpected decades later, Mentor Books show up at used bookstores all the time, and two things can be noticed about them instantly:

First, these are massively sturdy books, physically. They're all mass-market paperbacks, but they were printed on high-quality hardy-white paper stock, and their binding is incredibly solid, as immovable as the binding of old-style Penguin Classics is flexible. Mentor Books were built to last as long as it would take their physical components to decay - not for a season or two (like present-day mass market paperbacks, which can hardly withstand one careful reading before cracking apart like a hopeful marriage), but for the entire life of the potential reader. Even now, in the doorstep-days of the 21st century, chances are any Mentor Book you encounter at Pete's Book Shack or The Revised Index will be in every bit as good condition as it was when its original owner bought it, to pass the time in ROTC or on the bus-ride to Woodstock.

And second, these were ambitious volumes. They wanted to teach you things, to show you things, and they very often assembled lots of first-rate talent to do so. Editors in this series were loyal (were they paid well? One doubts it, the editorial lot in life being one of the constants of the universe), and they did by and large wonderful work in volume after volume. Take, for instance, the two delightful Mentor volumes collecting eight great comedies and eight great tragedies from the whole span of Western literature and plopping them down right in front of you in two handy volumes: these were edited by, among others, the great (and greatly missed - you could have no better or funnier company on a nice slow 1970s crawl through every shelf-inch of every one of the fifteen used bookstores Harvard Square had at the time) Sylvan Barnet, in whose care you could repose all the trust in the world.

True, the sureness of the selections wobbles a bit the nearer it approaches the present day (does even the most partisan soul think Yeats' "On Baile's Strand," for instance, deserves to be on the same bill of fare as "King Lear" and "Prometheus Bound"? Or, for that matter, Machiavelli's "The Mandragola" in the same lineup as "Uncle Vanya" and "Twelfth Night"?) , but even in those cases, the juxtapositions of eras and styles makes the whole enterprise that much more exciting. And since Mentor Books were designed for maximum durability (like their company cousins, our old friends the Signet Classic Poetry Series), that was an excitement you could carry around with you everywhere.

There was excitement too in some of the more scholarly editions of Mentor Books, which could often be, in their quieter, less obtrusive way, the best such editions popularly available. Two examples will suffice: Donald Dudley's remarkably good translation of the Annals of Tacitus (accompanied by a very generous number of end-notes, many of which make fantastic reading on their own), still one of the best English translations of Tacitus available in your better-stocked used bookstores, and Horace Gregory's terrific 1958 translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which is still, after half a century, the single best translation ever made of Ovid into English.

Both these editions are truly remarkable events, and the Gregory actually sold well for Mentor (although neither it nor any other Mentor Book could even distantly approach the sales of their single most popular book, Edith Hamilton's Mythology which, like the Pyramids, will be here long after we're all gone) - and the combination was thrilling. It still is thrilling, whenever encountered by chance at Merle's World or Hand It Over.

Most thrilling of all, naturally, are the oddities, the snatches of weird, utterly opinionated, utterly memorable prose where you least expect it. Probably my favorite example of this is contained in the (again, ambitious) volume 100 British Poets, edited and presided over by Selden Rodman. His omissions in this volume are nearly as interesting as his inclusions, but it's his final summarizing essay that provokes smiles of delight and consternation. Here's what he has to say about my dear Edmund Spenser, for instance:

Ever since The Faerie Queene's first three books were published in 1590 (and dedicated to Elizabeth lest she miss the point), Spenser has been considered a major poet. Will the verdict be reversed in our century? - or has this anthologist a blind spot? Perhaps we don't have anymore for this poet's perpetual slow motion. Hazlitt, in the Romantic heyday when Spenser's influence was huge, felt it necessary to reassure readers that even if the ponderous allegorical machinery of Spenser's pastoral epic did indeed exist, it wouldn't bite. Loaded with voluptuous sensuality, but unleavened with an iota of passion or humor, timeThe Faerie Queene is consistently dull.

All of which might be unforgivable, except who can hold a grudge against a critic who can write something as heartfelt as this, about the insufferable Shelley:

At eighteen I could not have been convinced that greater lyrics had been written than "Music when soft voices die," "When the lamp is shattered," or "The Indian Serenade." At twenty I gloried in the "difficulties" of "Epipsychidion," "The Sensitive Plant," and "The Triumph of Life." And at twenty-one (with tears in my eyes) I recited whole stanzas from "Adonais" at Keats' grave. Ten years later, I found the lyrics insipid, the intellectual poems pretentious and the elegy frigid. Today I wouldn't be quite so cavalier in dismissal of any of these poems, but discovery of the earlier political poems of Shelley (which I found unreadable in adolescence) has convinced me anew of Shelley's stature. Let anyone read these thrilling indictments of heartlessness in high office and the oncoming urban nightmare and still call Shelley (was it Arnold who did?) "an ineffectual angel beating his luminous wings in the void"!

That entirely accurate evocation of how even our most passionately held artistic beliefs can radically change over time is the perfect reason why it's such a good thing these Mentor Books are so durable and well-edited: there's a good chance, given the mutability of the human heart, that we'll always need them, when we happen to encounter them at The Back Page or The King's Browse.


Sam said...

Huzzah! I have a weakness for the Mentors. Like Penguins and Oxfords, I just trust the quondam powers that be that they'll put out books well worth my time. Dante and William James and the like, sure, but it's books like "Relativity and the Layman" and "The Living Talmud" and George Kennan's "American Diplomacy" and Isaiah Berlin's "The Hedgehog and the Fox" that win me over most, since I might have never read these things if I didn't implicitly trust the publisher that suggested I read them.

Sam said...

And what is the deal with Edith Hamilton's "Mythology"? I read it in an afternoon (maybe that's part of the appeal?) and I'll be damned if I recall a thing about it. Except for the pencil sketches that opened each section. Seems like a pretty bloodless version of some wild, often bloody tales.

steve said...

Hoo-ray for "American Diplomacy"! What a deceptively powerful and entirely memorable little book!

Greg said...

Ha, I'm reading the Mentor version of "Mythology" right now.