Today’s book trade has two distinct faces. Behind the smooth, younger-looking one sit Penguin Random House and Amazon-type conglomerates with their armies of marketing men and women. The other, more lined face is made up of independent publishers, small bookshops and individual enthusiasts.
The conglomerate culture incorporates the fashionable and promotes the predictable. The independent individuals, book lovers of the kind who once ran major publishing houses, offer varied, idiosyncratic, risky and personal connections to literature.
New Yorkers Michael Z Wise and Ross Ufberg embody the independent spirit. Ufberg is a writer and literary translator of Russian and Polish into English. Wise is also an author and a former foreign correspondent with Reuters and the Washington Post.
Having met at a Manhattan spelling bee, where Wise’s son was competing and Ufberg was the announcer, the men — both members of the Ansche Chesed shul on the Upper West Side — quickly became firm friends sharing, Wise recalls, a “passion for literature, ideas and Jewish learning”.
Last year, they established the New Vessel Press, in order to publish “ambitious, high-quality literature”.
Their first book, The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Argentinian writer Pedro Mairal, came out at the beginning of this month. Now, Wise and Ufberg are about to revive Fanny von Arnstein: Daughter of the Enlightenment, a classic biography of the 19th-century Viennese society hostess, known as “the fair Hebrew”, who personally pleaded with Emperor Joseph II to grant Jews full equality. Its author, Hilde Spiel, fled Austria for London in 1936 but returned after the war and worked for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as well as writing novels and translating the works of modern British writers including W H Auden, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene and Tom Stoppard.
Although NVP’s list is far from exclusively Jewish, it does have a strong Jewish flavour. Titles in the pipeline include Some Day, the debut novel of Israeli film-maker Shemi Zarhin, whose films include Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi and The World is Funny. Another novel, Killing the Second Dog, by the Polish writer Marek Hlasko, is set in Israel. Ufberg and Wise also plan to publish contemporary Hebrew fiction in English translation, filling a gap frequently remarked upon by culture-starved UK-based Israelis.
It is refreshing nowadays to discover a publisher whose vision extends beyond the Twitter sphere. This is not to deny, or decry, the excitement of readers sharing on social media their enthusiasm for particular books or writers. Or the practical benefits of eReaders. High literary standards do not automatically mean rejecting modern developments. And, as Wise and Ufberg seek a British distributor for their printed material, they are meanwhile publishing in ebook form through a number of UK outlets.
Yet, while discussing books is a social activity, reading is an essentially solitary affair, which is lessened in the case of an ebook. To read a book on screen, however remarkable a process, is to do so at one remove, detached, the flow of pages rendered uniform and characterless.
The Amazon-led revolution has, of course, enabled us to have real books, hardback and paperback, delivered to our doors. But it has also accelerated the high-street blight that has seen off booksellers. Some have confronted this threat enterprisingly and there are still many imaginatively run bookshops providing a welcoming and stimulating atmosphere that attracts loyal and eager customers. Such establishments are often the venues for book clubs, launches, talks and readings. Examples in London include the various branches of Daunts -and Belgravia Books, whose monthly newsletter with its laconic resumés of current “essential reads”, frequently flags up books of specific Jewish interest.
Belgravia’s August selections extend from Revenge Wears Prada — Lauren Weisberger’s sequel to The Devil Wears Prada — to Magda, by Meike Ziervogel, a part-fact, part-fiction account of the life of Joseph Goebbels’s wife. Also included are A M Homes’s acclaimed dark comedy May We Be Forgiven and Michele Fitoussi’s biography of Helena Rubenstein — “the first female self-made millionaire”. Therein, perhaps, lies the secret of beautifying the book trade’s older face.