Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Genre Fiction

Most days I'm not aware of the war being waged in front of my eyes. There are direct traces, to be sure, but such is the nature of my focus on smaller details that the war goes on of its own volition, unnoticed. In some symbolic or metaphoric way, I remind myself of Arjuna, the primary performer or, if you will, non=performer in The Bhagvad-Gita, in the sense of having relatives in both sides of the struggle.

Indeed, the war began in my bookshelves and is largely waged there, although there are spillovers when I visit used book stores and libraries or scan the search engines of Amazon, Alibris, and Abe books.

The battlefield is a temporal one, the players or sides being the modern design for hardcover and paperback book covers and the cover art dating back to the 1930s and 1940s, extending more or less up to the 1950s. Such distinctions are the literary equivalents of the tree-ring dating process for the archaeologist; they define eras by the things they illustrate, they way they exploit design concepts, and the manner in which they use illustrative technology.

One of my early treasures--no pun intended--in this ongoing warfare was a copy of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, Treasure Island, its cover illustrated by N. C. Wyeth. Much as I enjoyed the story, much as I latched on to other works of the author, much as I returned to it and him at later stages of my life, that first experience was like first love and first sexual encounter, tree-ring dating equivalent of my own emotional sort, making the illustration stand on one side of the equal sign, the text at the other. Often my acquisition daydreams involve securing a copy of Treasure Island, featuring that iconic and quite splendid illustration. This is where it--the battlefield between the romantic, iconic, dare I say magical illustration format grabbed me by the shoulders, spun me around, and said the equivalent of This is is, kid.

Next plateau is a toss-up. Probably what came first was the dramatic, mythic weekly installments of Harold R. Foster's remarkable strip, Prince Valiant. which brought to comic art a quality of drawing I had not seen before, so rich in detail that it removed all doubt for me that the Prince had lived and as well so had his friends, family, enemies all lived. And, I reasoned, if they had not actually lived, they nevertheless seemed so authentic that they lived in my mind, bearing flags of plausibility and authenticity.

No question about where the next plateau or chapter fell. This episode is the episode of the Big Little Book, a combination of text and illustration (more often than not black-and-white line drawing, sometimes enhanced with a ben-day screen. I am happy to say that a number of Big Little Books, not all in the best of condition because of their pulpy, yellowed paper, hold a space on the lower shelf of the bookshelf closest to my desk.

The top tier of the same shelf contains many of the massmarket paperbacks of what I will call the first generation. Some of these came from used book stores, one Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key, has known no other owner than me. I first became aware of these massmarket paperbacks in one of the now-defunct Thrifty Drug Store chain, located at the southeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Cochran Street, a corner at which I incidentally sold Liberty Magazine and the Los Angeles Herald-Express. Inside the Thrifty Drug was a coin-operated vending machine which accepted quarters, all that was necessary in those splendid adventurous days of yore to buy a paperback Pocket Book, Microbe Hunters, by Paul de Kriuf. There seemed at the time something explosively rebellious about books that size. In addition to the standard hardcovers which were either 6 inches by 9 inches or 5 1/2 x 8 1/4, it was possiblele to essay secreting the smaller books in desks or within other books, text books, and thus read what you chose as opposed to assigned reading. Some years later--not too many, really, I was to meet Ian Ballentine, the man who had evolved the format and merchandising plan for Pocket Books while a student at the London School of Economics, a man who returned to his native America, where he promptly started a publishing company with his own name as its logo. Ballentine Books.

Soon enough, I found my own way into publishing, not through the door I'd set out to enter but nevertheless in a position where I could and did contract books such as the one I mentioned yesterday, The Pulp Jungle, by Frank Gruber, which came about after I'd got Gruber to agree to batching what we both considered the best of his most famous pulp stories featuring Oliver Quade, The Human Encyclopedia. Wanting a title that in itself spoke of the romance of the old pulps, I suggested Brass Knuckles, and then the subtitle, The Oliver Quade Human Encyclopedia Stories. Kid, Gruber said, I think you're on to something.

That venture got me rolling big time. Frank had included a short introductory essay to the collection. Fascinated, I bade him expand.

Just this brief note about another aspect of the war going on in my bookshelves. Although I had nothing to do with it except read it and write a longish, admiring review of it for The Montecito Journal, Michael Chabon's provocative and worthy venture into nonfiction after eight straight remarkable works of fiction, Maps and Legends, now resides in the same book case. In addition to its chapters, each of which is an essay in the best sense of that word, the book has the kind of stunning artwork that so captures the intent and reach of Chabon's text.

No comments: