Books for Holiday Giving

Books for Holiday Giving November 29, 2012

Kudos to the university presses that are publishing books of the soundest scholarship for the general reader: books with the highest production values and astoundingly reasonable prices. Here are two that I recommend for readers on your gift list.

A Spicing of Birds: Poems by Emily Dickinson, selected by Jo Miles Schuman and Joanna Bailey Hodgman (Wesleyan University Press, $22.95).

Did you know that Dickinson wrote 222 poems with references to birds? As the compilers write in their introduction, “Birds are woven through her poems like the string she mentions that ‘Robins steal… for Nests—.’” Dickinson was a sharp observer of birds, and in her poems she often made images for particular species:

“Some keep the Sabbath going to Church— / I keep it, staying at Home— / With a Bobolink for a Chorister—.” Or the phoebe, image of Dickinson’s own timidity: “I dwelt too low that any seek— / Too shy, that any blame— / A Phoebe makes a little print / Upon the floors of Fame—.”

The poems collected here are themselves a treasure. But the bonus is the book’s visual dimension. Illustrations of birds by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists comprise the facing page of nearly every poem. These full-color prints make the book luscious to look at. And with every page printed on cardstock (imagine—cardstock!), the book is also luscious to hold. It gives a tactile pleasure that can never be replicated by e-books. Oh, and the book is hardcover, too—giving that wonderful sense of permanence and solidity that paperbacks and e-books can never have.

I’ve been wondering how Wesleyan University Press can afford to sell a book with such high production costs for only $22.95. One of my own university press books, for instance, is listed at $45 for paperback and $95 for hardcover: i.e., listed so as not to sell! Wesleyan must be counting on high sales volume to recover their costs—and in fact the book, published in 2010, has already sold thousands of copies.

Hot off the press is the other gorgeously produced book I recommend: The Annotated Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, edited by scholars Susan Wolfson and Ronald Levao (Harvard University Press, $29.95).

This large, hardcover book (nearly ten-inches square and an inch-and-a-half thick) weighs in at one pound. Talk about solidity!

Comparatively heavy as it is, though, The Annotated Frankenstein feels comfortable in your lap, say, when you’re sitting in a cozy chair on a stormy winter evening with a cup of hot tea by your side. The perfect spot for savoring with alternating tremors of panic and delight this truly sumptuous volume.

Though not cardstock, the paper is thick and creamy: perfect for your ease in appreciating the color and black-and-white prints (including stills from the iconic Frankenstein movies) that flesh out the editors’ claim of the novel’s persistent and many-faceted appeal both to the scholarly and the popular imagination. (Hurricane Sandy’s alternate identity as Frankenstorm is but the most recent example of the currency of Mary Shelley’s imaginative flight, first published in 1818.)

As for Wolfson and Levao’s scholarship, it is not only impeccable, it is also that rare thing, fun to read at every point, from the historical and literary introduction to the sepia-toned notes that accompany the novel’s text on beautifully generous margins. This is a treat not to be missed, and, like A Spicing of Birds, a perfect gift.

And speaking of production values: If the visual and tactile quality of what you read matters to you—and to those on your gift list—why not give them a subscription to Image?

From the start, the editors of this quarterly journal of the arts made the (financially risky) decision to produce a journal whose look and feel is worthy of the quality of the art inside: shiny paper, full-color prints of artwork, comfortably large font, a single poem per page (so lots of space to let the poem resonate). Every issue features not only a visual artist or two, but also several poets’ work, a couple short stories, personal essays, and an interview with a major artist whose work bears on the life of faith. (Interviewed in the current issue is Marilynne Robinson.)

Finally, shamelessly, I’ll put in a plug for my own latest book: Knit One, Purl a Prayer: A Spirituality of Knitting.  No glossy paper or color prints; but the publisher, Paraclete Press, did a lovely job of creating space for meditation in the large margins of each page. There’s a nice review here. And this one is priced to sell: $16.99.

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