I can't seem to get my fill of books about books, whether they're confessions penned by passionate book collectors, memoirs by the owners of famous bookshops or histories of storied publishing enterprises. My only complaint is that these types of books, which once filled publishers' catalogues, have dwindled in number as the Internet age has come to dominate our lives.
But one writer who's made a career out of replenishing the "books-about- books" category — no matter the downturn in publishing — has been Nicholas Basbanes. He became one of my favorites in this admittedly limited-appeal sub-genre when he published his first book nearly 15 years ago, called appropriately enough A Gentle Madness. (The title refers to the virus that all bibliophiles suffer from, and it's a phrase I repeat to my wife often as I schlep the latest shipment of books into our already overburdened home, reminding her that there are far worse diseases a spouse could have.)
Every few years since his publishing debut in 1995, Basbanes has provided a new installment in his love affair with books.
So when Yale University Press tapped him to put together the commemorative volume to mark its centennial year, it seemed to me a perfect pairing of writer and subject. For the bibliophile with rarified tastes, A World of Letters is another must-have.
I've said numerous times over the last two decades that Yale has put together the finest line-up of books, season after season, of any academic press in the country. "Their titles have been consistent in quality and interest, ranging all over the intellectual map as far as subject matter is concerned. Yale publishes books for the general reader and the specialist, and also manages to create some of the most beautiful art and architecture volumes in the country." That's me quoting me, but the press also quotes me to that effective on its centennial Web-site offering, which is flattering, but doesn't detract from the accuracy of the assessment.
Basbanes clearly feels the same way about the press, and so has approached his task with the reverence and gravitas it demands. But that doesn't mean that the work is dull; in fact, I found it filled with splendid anecdotes and portraits of outsized personalities, which was a surprise since we're talking about the small-scale world of academic publishing. You'd expect such grand types to be walking down Manhattan streets, but hardly along Temple Street in New Haven.
While reading A World of Letters, I learned any numbers of things, and the work even contains a fair share of surprises. Take the fact that Yale, like Princeton, came late to the whole enterprise of publishing, and that the press was established by a trio of alumnae — George Parmly Day, Class of 1897; his older brother, Clarence S. Day Jr., Class of 1896; and a classmate of Clarence's, Edwin Oviatt.
The name Clarence Day Jr. may not ring any bells these days except for those who are up on their New Yorker trivia or Broadway lore. As Basbanes puts it, Clarence Day Jr., who was sickly for a good part of his adult life — he died in 1935 at age 61 — "achieved celebrity as an author, most famously of a best-selling memoir of growing up in Manhattan in the 1890s as one of four sons in an affluent East Side household headed by a domineering father. Published five months before his death, Life With Father became the basis of a comedy adapted for the stage by Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse. It opened on Broadway in 1939 and ran for a record 3,224 performances; a 1947 film starring William Powell, Irene Dunne, and a very young Elizabeth Taylor received Oscar nominations for cinematography, art direction, musical score, and best actor."
Life With Father actually began as a series of pieces in The New Yorker that were later gathered together in book form, which then landed on the best-seller list.
Basbanes tells us that while Clarence Day lent his "full enthusiasm" to the new press, he was content to let his younger brother "be the prime mover in the ambitious initiative, which began operations not in New Haven but in New York, where George Parmly Day was gainfully employed in his father's Wall Street brokerage firm and in no position, just yet, to give up his day job."
The first offices were in what Day called a "10 by 12" room; then they moved into "a little black cave" of an office on Fifth Avenue near Washington Square. The workforce during this "embryonic period" consisted solely of George Day's wife, Wilhelmine Octavia Johnson Day. And even after there was a full-time staff in New Haven conducting all business, Basbanes writes, "Wilhelmine Day retained an abiding interest" in the workings of the press.
"An orphan raised by a guardian, and childless throughout her 47-year marriage to George Parmly Day, she was a formidable presence, and not shy about offering an opinion. Such was the case in 1931, when she returned from a trip to Europe and urged her husband to publish an overview of economic reform then being attempted in Sweden as a response to world depression, an experiment in government that would later be described as a 'constructive compromise between capitalism and socialism.' Following her advice, the Press commissioned Marquis W. Childs, a young foreign correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who had reported from Stockholm, to write Sweden: The Middle Way, which in 1936 became an international best seller, so influential that Yale published a sequel, Sweden: The Middle Way on Trial, 44 years later. Alvin Eisenman, founder and director of the graphic design program at the Yale School of Art and one in a long line of great printers and graphic designers to work at the Press, told Roberta Yerkes Blanshard, an editorial employee from 1929 to 1950, about a telephone call he received from the boss's wife on his first day of employment as a Yale typographer in 1951. 'Mr. Eisenman,' she told him, 'I want you to know that Mr. Day and I never had any children. The Yale Press is our child, and I want you to treat it carefully.' At that point, according to Eisenman, 'Click, she hung up. And never mentioned it again.' "
Other outsized figures range through these entertaining pages, like Chester Brooks Kerr who led the press from 1959-1979, and is described by Basbanes as a "vigorous, robust man who enjoyed wearing beautifully tailored Savile Row suits" and, by all accounts, "saw himself as the living symbol of the Press … ."
In addition, Yale has had some long-running hit series, among them the Yale Younger Series of Poets, which keeps both readers and versifiers on their toes, and the Annals of Communism series which I believe is one of most significant ongoing publishing ventures of the last 50 years.
Luckily, for Yale, the press has put out some blockbuster titles, among them The Lonely Crowd by sociologist David Riesman and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, longtime staples of the backlist. The story of how the latter was acquired is one of the numerous stirring tales that Basbanes relates in A World of Letters; like others in the book, it will definitely set the hearts of committed bibliophiles racing a bit.