George Nicholson, literary agent at Sterling Lord Literistic and a former children’s book publisher, describes what’s on his bedside table.
Almost all of my reading at home is adult, sometimes connected with children’s books, sometimes not. I have just finished a fascinating book, Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-1935, Beautiful Books, Terrible Times, a group of essays edited by Julian Rothenstein. It is truly a startling collection of Soviet illustrators in a volatile political world. Largely left out of political turmoil, Soviet illustrators were able to work freely.
That led me to Karl Schlogel’s Moscow 1937, which further extends the art of the Soviet period with absorbing anecdotes. That in turn led me to two books about occupied Paris: France, The Dark Years 1940-1944 by Julian Jackson, and Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944 by Jean Guéhenno. The former is a dense exploration of this period, often day by day. The latter is one man’s experience in analyzing what was going on around him. The arts in these two countries have many similarities which speak to the creative under oppression.
I have also just finished The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley. I knew Malcolm from my years at Viking, when, as a young and eager listener, I heard his stories about the post- World War I turmoil and its effects on American arts and politics.
Art catalogues are very much a part of my reading. Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 is an introduction to the arts in polyglot Vienna at the turn of the century and in the postwar years.
Utterly different (and a real doorstop) is William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, a recent exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center. Art catalogues have a way of selling out almost instantly, and as they always serve as a framework for books I am currently working on for children, I buy not as a collector but in a firm knowledge of what interests me and will be useful. I don’t always read what I buy immediately, but no book goes long unread.
Jane Gardam’s Stories is a book I instantly embraced. I love the quiet tenacity and the valor of Gardam’s characters. Her first novel, A Long Way to Verona, I read at Alan Garner’s home in northern England over 40 years ago. I knew I was onto something very special, but did not pick up the strain again until many years later with Old Filth. Reading Gardam in tandem with Penelope Fitzgerald, and along with Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes have given me enormous pleasure. I must have bought at least 20 copies of Hare to give away as gifts. The recreation of lost times and places surrounded by the rising winds of loss are unique to these books and have brought me many sad but rewarding hours.
P.S.: The handsome devil in the sailor suit is my father, ca. 1919.