I am often stunned by the many ways to discover backlist gems from my home computer everyday via online retailers and social media. I do read a lot of professional media, but I don’t limit what I buy to what is of use to my work. It is true that when you work in publishing, you get used to – sometimes jaded – about the number of books you know. Yet it still brings me a lot of pleasure to find out about books and authors rarely mentioned in popular media, especially “midlist” non-fiction, the elusive non-celebrity, non-self-help, not-chill, subjects by not-already-popular authors.
My own favorite hobby horses are American history, almost any century, because I live in a house built in 1750 and I grew up a baby boomer; early Eastern Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, and Islam on the Silk Road, because I finally got to see the ruins in Turkey; African literature and memoirs, because my nephew is stationed in Lagos, Nigeria, with the State Department; history of science, because I didn’t take any hard science in college, and literary history about Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing, and Shakespeare, because I was an “English Major” — which is why I didn’t read science books until I grew up and realized it was worth paying as much attention to the real world as to fiction.
Here’s a sampling of the new ebooks under “recent” on my iPad (some of which I’ve just started reading):
Dr. Kimble and Mr. Jefferson by Hugh Howard, about the early 20th Century architect who rediscovered Jefferson the fact that this Founding Father had built Monticello. How can you not want to read more when the first chapter tells you that since his death in 1826, “nothing in the Jefferson literature suggested that the man ever built or cared about a building in his life.”
After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400-2000 by John Darwin. You can’t imagine modern history without Empires, and their wars. Can we learn from and not repeat the past?
Mrs. Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light. Nothing was easy for a woman writer when Virginia Woolf first achieved a “room of her own.” Despite her bohemian Bloomsbury rebellion, she could not avoid the politics of class in a house that required the help of at least one servant if she and Leonard were to be able to both write and run a publishing house, even without children to raise.
The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Of course this is a bestseller you will know about, but it is worth reading not just talking about. Don’t be intimidated by it’s length. You can skip around. But you’ll never think about Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft, Trust Busting Republicans, carefully documented investigative journalism, or honest politicians (yes, they did exist) the same way again.
Christian Beginnings by Geza Vermes. Sadly, I often discover the best books in my “hobby horse” subjects via obituaries for authors that I don’t know because I didn’t read them when I was a student or didn’t work at their publisher, the two most likely ways I mine the backlist. When Geza Vermes died last year, I was still following the new perspective on the transition from Greek, Roman and Jewish cultures to European and Islamic cultures that I had gained from my visit to Turkey, especially in the ruins of Ephesus and the mosques, churches and secular museums of Istanbul. It was a relief to find that the books by this Jewish historian were still in print. I chose this book about the Jewish roots of the “Jesus movement” because what I already knew about Christianity from my Episcopalian upbringing gave me a place to begin to better understand Judaism at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. When Vermes’ scholarship led me to Burton Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament I found a way to leap across the divide from my sunday school years to a world where the fact that Jesus was Jewish — and that the Apostles who invented his brand were too — is a surprise to no one.