NEW YORK–Like the Bible-transcribing medieval monks before him, Edwin Frank, 53, is a keeper of a cultural flame. As editorial director of the New York Review Books publishing imprint, he is responsible for reviving great works of literature that might otherwise be lost to obscurity. Since it began 15 years ago, New York Review Books has brought more than 300 titles back into print. It is an enterprise underwritten by a deep love of books, and the belief that literature can change our lives.
Edwin describes the wide range of works that New York Review Books publishes as books in translation as well as books that have fallen out of print–worthy and wonderful works that might otherwise fall through the cracks. “The books that we end up finding in America are sort of outliers,” he says.
Case in point may be Stoner, the sleeper hit of the series. The 1965 novel by a little-known college professor named John Williams, Stoner is, in Edwin’s words, “a wonderful book, but also hard to describe.” It tells the story of an average college professor, named Stoner, teaching at a middling university, whose life is marked by suffering, large and small. On its face, Stoner wouldn’t appear to be a candidate for the kind of attention it’s received.
“It’s a book in which very little that isn’t very ordinary, and ordinarily unhappy, takes place,” Edwin says. “But I think people are very deeply moved by it for exactly that reason. It’s a book about stoicism, and a book about endurance, and a book finally about integrity that reduces a lot of people to tears. I think they also find it in some way uplifting. So it’s a very powerful book.”
Stoner has gained latent fame and praise from reviewers like Julian Barnes, and has even sold well overseas. “With American writers, that’s the sort of writers we end up publishing: writers who are rediscoveries rather than established ones,” Edwin adds. “And it’s nice to think that they may now be becoming established, as they should.”
A different kind of trajectory was found with Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer active in the 1920s and 1930s. Once very famous, Zweig “went into a decline for a period,” says Edwin, “but is now coming back to a sort of popularity.” The New York Review has republished five of Zweig’s titles, and Wes Anderson’s new movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by his stories.
Edwin also cites the success of Season of Migration to the North, by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. “The novel is a kind of almost critical re-write of [Joseph Conrad’s] Heart of Darkness,” he says, “that is an absolute staple, I think, of anybody studying post-war twentieth-century fiction, at this point.”
Fortunately for readers, commercial success is by no means the only, or best, yardstick by which to measure the reach of a project like New York Review Books. Reading and books can give us things that are difficult to quantify, which is why it is so important to rescue good but unknown books from the vagaries of the current marketplace–one that can, at times, nurture quantity over quality, and commercialism over literary merit.
“I think we may all know the feeling of coming out of a movie,” Edwin says, “and having our very gait transformed by the kind of encounter with a star over the course of two hours. Feeling like you walk with a new or different spring in your step. Books do the same thing. They alter one’s disposition, sometimes for a short period of time, sometimes for a long period of time.
“The overwhelming thing you come away with literature, as from any kind of art, is that there’s a world elsewhere,” he adds. “There’s leverage on reality. That it can be different. And that power, which is basically an explosive power, is I think the power that ultimately we all come back to it for.”
And with New York Review Books, he’s giving readers that power, and making an enormous contribution to our collective cultural knowledge.
Featured photo: New York Review Books Editorial Director Edwin Frank holds a James Thurber book he republished. Photo by Nick Poppy. TruthAtlas original video by Nick Poppy.
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