Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Norton Book!

Our books today are the Norton Books that this venerable publisher has put out for most of the last century, a generally excellent series of anthologies well fit to share shelf-space with the Oxford Books we briefly mentioned a little while ago (what can I say? You Stevereads readers might not be big on leaving comments - even though it would please me greatly! - but you definitely make your wishes known privately, for which I'm of course grateful). When I was wandering down my bookshelves trying to decide which Oxford Books to highlight in that earlier entry, I kept encountering Norton Books as well - I've got several, and for the same reason: thanks to superior editing (and packaging - Norton Books are slightly thinner than other trade paperbacks, which makes them fit nicer in the hand).

Of course the Norton Books aren't to be confused with the Norton Anthologies! The latter are the cinderblock-sized classroom-ready volumes designed to torment college freshmen ... they come with plentiful extraneous footnotes and study-prompts, and they have their own charms, but they're more dutiful than the Norton Books, more concerned with leaving absolutely nothing out (except for The Rise of Silas Lapham, that is, since it was notoriously dumped from the Norton Anthology of American Literature a few years ago) than with the artistry of what they leave in. The Norton Books are intended more for the general reader, and there've been some very successful volumes.

Probably the most commercially successful volume we'll be dealing with today is The Norton Book of Nature Writing, and that's mainly because I have the College Edition, which taps into Norton's license to print money by requiring these things for college courses. The college editions have virtually no introductory essays to speak of, and they're PACKED with excerpts, the better to suit the atrophied attention spans of today's youth. But this volume still has choice bits ranging the spectrum - there's Gilbert White, David Thompson, Meriwether Lewis, John James Audobon, Thoreau, John Muir, and all the moderns - including the always-readable Diane Ackerman:

Where do the colors come from? Sunlight rules most living things with its golden edicts. When the days begin to shorten, soon after the summer solstice on June 21, a tree reconsiders its leaves. All summer it feeds them so they can process sunlight, but in the dog days of summer the tree begins pulling nutrients back into its trunk and roots, pares down, and gradually chokes off its leaves. A corky layer of cells forms at the leaves' slender petioles, then scars over. Undernourished, the leaves stop producing the pigment chlorophyll, and photosynthesis ceases. Animals can migrate, hibernate, or store food to prepare for winter. But where can a tree go? It survives by dropping its leaves, and by the end of autumn only a few fragile threads of fluid-carrying xylem hold leaves to their stems.

A much less frantic and much stronger volume is Joseph Epstein's The Norton Book of Personal Essays from 1997. Epstein is a heck of a writer, and his introductory essay on the nature of the essay is, as we saw in Jonathan Raban's Oxford Book of the Sea, worth being considered alongside some of the ones he selects. For him, essays are little acts of discovery - not only for the reader but for the writer:

For example, I plan before long to write an essay on the subject of talent. Just know I know very little about the subject apart from the fact that it fascinates me. "We need a word between talent and genius," Valery once said. He may well be correct, but just now I am myself not even clear on the precise definition of the word "talent." I know only that talent tends to be something magical, or at least confers magic on its possessors, no matter in what realm: art, athletics, crime. In this essay, I intend to speak of my own admiration for the talented, question the extent to which I may myself have any spark of talent, try to figure out the meaning of talent in the larger scheme of existence. Through this essay I hope to learn what I really think about this complex subject and, while doing so, to learn perhaps something new about myself and the world.

That's very fluid and very honest, and those two qualities sparkle in all the classic pieces he anthologizes here. We have Virginia Woolf, of course, and Rebecca West, and Dorothy Parker - and Edmund Wilson, his much-anthologized and exquisite "A Preface to Persius," in which the conceit is that he buys an old translation of the Roman poet Persius (by a man named William Drummond) and reads it while he dines out alone (on a meal big enough and rich enough to get him thrown in jail were he to attempt to eat it today). The food and the wine work their magic on him as he reads, and the magic of the essay is that we feel the artificiality of it all and yet don't mind, even when he's working it like a carnival barker:

I had finished the apple, the Brie cheese and the little black demi-tasse, and I turned to the book again: "I cannot conclude this Preface, without lamenting that an early and untimely death should have prevented the Poet, whom I have translated, from giving a more finished appearance to his works." How extraordinary that William Drummond, almost two thousand years after Christ, should have felt this solidarity with Persius, that, bridging the ruins of Rome, bridging the confusion of the Middle Ages, we should find him lamenting this early death as if it were that of some able young man who had been educated at the same institutions and shared with him the same values. This discord of chaos and reality!

Equally good and a good deal more magisterial is the 1993 Norton Book of Classical Literature edited by the mighty Bernard Knox, whose panoramic Introduction is a soaring triumph of compression, giving his readers an accurate thumbnail sketch of all the literature of classical antiquity. The sweep of the piece is its charm, but it's great in particular too, as when he writes of Horace's Odes, "It is significant that just as he had no real predecessor in these experiments, he had few followers; his success is unique."

And he picks some choice bits from the classics - if the entirety of the Loeb Classical Library were to disappear tomorrow, we'd still be in fair shape with this one volume. This is the particular genius of Norton Books: even while they're touring their subjects, they're encapsulating them. The chronologies of all authors and styles are fairly touched upon, and gems abound. Here's Catullus to sing us on our way, until next time:

If ever anyone anywhere, Lesbia, is looking
for what he knows will not happen
and then unexpectedly it happens -
the soul is astonished,
as we are now in each other,
an event dearer than gold,
for you have restored yourself, Lesbia, desired
restored yourself, longed for, unlooked for,
brought yourself back
to me. White day in the calendar!
Who happier than I?
What more can life offer
than the longed for unlooked for event when it happens?


Greg said...

Great post! "Preface to Persius" was one of my favorites from Shores of Light, and the Norton Book of Classical Literature is a gold mine.

(And, uh, if you see a copy of the Book of Personal Essays, maybe pick it up for me?)

Anonymous said...

Yes your faithful readers appreciate you very much, even when we don't say so out loud. Do you think you will top your 2008 posting total as you had hoped this year? And are you already working on your best & worst of the year ideas - one of the best parts of stevereads!

steve said...

oh, I know you're all out there - I hear about it in emails, which is very nice (although not ideal for an attention-craving old warhorse such as myself!).

And yes, OH yes, I'm keeping extensive notes for my Best and Worst of 2009 entries! Wouldn't miss that for the world!

I'm fairly certain 2009 will leave 2008 in the dust as far as total number of entries, although I won't be commemorating another anniversary until I hit 1000 entries!

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