Pattern or Coincidence? You Decide

Piles and piles of books arrive at our offices every day, and we often notice publishing trends, or what seem to be trends . . . but might just be coincidences. So the game here is: Pattern or Coincidence? You tell us.

I'll start you off with an easy example of each.

Clear Pattern: Lincoln books. Because 2009 is the bicentennial of the great man's birth, writers and publishers are turning out far more than the usual (always high) volume of books about Lincoln. (Book World is paying attention and has identified some very good ones -- our reviewers have raved about Fred Kaplan's Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer and Allen C. Guelzo's Lincoln And Douglas: The Debates that Defined America -- but there are so many we cannot review them all.)

Just Coincidence: King Hussein. Two big, serious biographies of the Jordanian king (who died in 1999) have appeared this year, both by British academics. Knopf published Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace by Oxford don Avi Shlaim, and Yale University Press brought out King Hussein of Jordan: A Political Life by Nigel Ashton, who teaches at the London School of Economics. Both biographers obviously have been working on these books for some time.

OK. Now for some harder calls:

Herodotus. On top of Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels With Herodotus (published last year, out in paperback this year) came a handsome hardcover edition of The Landmark Herodotus, edited by Robert B. Strassler. And in January, Da Capo Press will publish Justin Marozzi's The Way of Herodotus. Why Herodotus, and why now? Why not a revival of Pliny the Elder or Josephus? Thucydides was the favored ancient historian of the Cold War for an obvious reason: The rivalry he chronicled between Athens and Sparta had a clear parallel. So tell me, does Herodotus speak in a special way to our era?

Yiddish. It's a lebedikeh velt! Yiddish is hip. On the scholarly side, Max Weinrich's two volume magnum opus, History of the Yiddish Language (finely reviewed this month by Harold Bloom in the New York Review of Books ) came out from Yale. On the pop side, Michael Wex, who gave us such nakhes with Born to Kvetch, has upped the ante with Just Say Nu. Shalom Auslander's memoir Foreskin's Lament came out in paperback, and there's something of a Sholom Aleichem revival: In February, Penguin Classics will republish Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor's Son, and Viking will issue what it calls the first complete translation of the novel Wandering Stars. It's enough to make you think that recent newspaper stories about the "revival" of Yiddish are actually onto something. I know, some of you are going to say: A glick hot dich getrofen!

Samuel Johnson. Two big new biographies of Dr. Johnson are appearing this fall. In September, Harvard University Press brought out Samuel Johnson: A Biography by Peter Martin. In December, Basic Books will publish Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers.

Women Diarists of the Holocaust. On the heels of Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise comes Agnes Humbert's Resistance and The Journal of Helene Berr (which is reviewed by Michael Dirda in this Sunday's Book World). Good books, troubling books. Why all of a sudden now, so many years after The Diary of Anne Frank? Pattern or coincidence?

-- Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  November 14, 2008; 10:58 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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Dear Alan Cooperman,

In considering your question about Herodotus, I have to wonder if the appeal lies in the this ancient author's search for knowledge through hearsay and rumor. Herodotus examines man's violent nature through observation, yes, but also through old stories, tall tales, and the words of strangers.

In our time, we are accustomed to suffering wars sparked by false tales, and we are accustomed to hearing fantastic lies about the world around us, yet we strive to assemble some sort of useful truth from all of it. Maybe we connect to Herodotus as never before.


Maxwell Heller
Editor, George Braziller Publishers

Posted by: maxwellheller | November 18, 2008 11:34 AM

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