This is the first in my series on publishers that make me drool. Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts is the publisher that solidified my thinking on the reasons to read through an entire catalog, because everything about this company is so damn beautiful.
I had the privilege of meeting Hawthorne publishers Rhonda Hughes and Kate Sage at Book Expo America 2006. For those unfamiliar with this event, it is a massive convention of booksellers, publishers, editors, and authors. Publishers exhibit their lines to the booksellers who will then (hopefully) order and sell their books. The exhibition hall was gargantuan, and full of everything from well-known publishers such as FSG to university presses to that guy who self-published a book about how his cat is in communication with an alien race that wants to mate with Earth women. I was able to go as part of the St. John’s College Bookstore’s entourage, since I worked there at the time (You can’t tell much from the website, but never have I loved a bookstore the way I love this one). There are tons of giveaways, and I walked away with as many books as I could carry.
All this to say, that, in spite of being dazzled by dozens of high-quality publishers putting their best foot forward and suckering me with free books, the company I remember most vividly was Hawthorne. I am thorough and obsessive when it comes to books, and so I insisted on exploring every aisle, afraid of missing some diamond in the rough. Publishers obviously had to pay for their position on the Expo floor, and it did turn out that most of the high-quality publishers had paid the money to be in better locations. I was off in some aisle close to the back wall, talking to that guy I mentioned (the one with the cat who talks to aliens), and wondering if I’d been wrong about this diamond in the rough idea. I turned around and saw Hawthorne’s table, and my life was changed.
Hughes and Sage had put up none of the bells and whistles I’d seen closer to the center of the action. They were literally sitting at a table with some books in front of them. But that was all they needed to be doing. The first thing you notice about Hawthorne’s books is that they’re physically appealing. They’re all trade paperbacks, printed on high-quality paper, with lovely fonts, and French flaps. French flaps are the thigh-high white stockings of book publishing. They have this innocent sexiness that I can’t explain. A moment’s glance told me that these people understood the sensuality of reading.
Then I saw Poe Ballantine’s name on multiple covers. I knew him from The Sun Magazine. If you’re like me, you have this fantasy about getting on a Greyhound bus and traveling all over the country, writing about the people you meet there, and supporting yourself with words and odd jobs. Ballantine is the guy who’s done that, and reported back on the lifestyle in all its glory and loneliness. I love his range. Sometimes, he romanticizes and I want to get on the road and follow him. But he always gives you the grit as well. Not just the cockroaches doing water ballet on the ceiling (his words), which are part of the romance, but the masturbating alone in a motel room, wondering what kind of loser the management thinks you are. Turns out, Hawthorne was publishing his essays and novels. Here was my diamond in the rough.
I heard Sage and Hughes admitting to an acquaintance that they hadn’t wanted to pay the rates for a better spot at the Expo. I enthused to them about Ballantine and admired the French flaps. A friend with me pressed them for a freebie and received it, but I sensed their reluctance and didn’t want to take from them. I went home later and ordered Ballantine’s Things I Like About America (excerpt here), which instantly became my favorite book of all time. Go to their website now and take a look. Its design tells you a lot about the publishers’ sense of style and grace. There are also nice touches, like the price of shipping is included in the price of the book.
But I told you yesterday that a publisher’s catalog has to make me want to read every one of the books, based on trust in the publisher alone, in order to make this series of blog posts. Hawthorne is the original example of that for me. Sure, I know I love Ballantine, but what about the rest of what they do? Looking over Hawthorne’s catalog (which they spell with a “ue”), I was fascinated by everything. If they publish Ballantine, I thought, who are these other people? Some highlights: D’Arcy Fallon’s So Late, So Soon, the story of life in a Christian commune; Mark Mordue’s Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip, the story of a journalist’s journey around the globe; Scott Nadelson’s The Cantor’s Daughter, a collection of short stories that come up regularly in my mind, more than 2 1/2 years after I first read them. The list shows every sign of being handpicked by discriminating and adventurous readers.
I’ve gone on about this press at greater length than I should have, probably, but I truly can’t say enough. I haven’t read the entire catalogue (I give in to their elegant spelling), but I would read it, I want to read it, I am working on reading it. I fully believe that I could randomly purchase any book published by Hawthorne and enjoy and admire it. This is a great example of what I mean when I say a publisher has a voice: Hawthorne’s comes through with such clear elegance. It’s graceful and literary, but not snooty. It’s exciting, very much about poking into the wild streaks running through life. It’s bold, but without the need for tragic hipster posturing. In short, it’s the best publisher I know.
I’m including some stats below (I may experiment with what goes in this block as this series continues). In filling in how much of the list I’ve read, I’m embarrassed that the number’s not higher. It’s totally doable to read everything this fantastic press puts out, and, considering how much I love what I’m already seen, it’s worth doing. I’ll take a look at that in the new year.
Publishers/Editors: Rhonda Hughes, Kate Sage, Adam O’Connor Rodriguez
Number of books in “catalogue”: 19
Number of books I’ve read: 4
Feature summary: Broad range of literature: essays, stories, nonfiction, novels; excellent website, Poe Ballantine; reprints great literary novels; French flaps.
P.S. Never fear. I doubt all these posts will be this long. I just have a major crush on Hawthorne, and I also have the day off.