Those of you who follow me on social media might have seen me haul a rather interesting book from the local Oxfam a couple of weeks back. The item in question is entitled “The Existentialist Imagination: From de Sade to Sartre”, and it was lurking in the Philosophy section, costing the grand sum of £1.99… I’ve been drawn to that particular section a lot recently (part of me wants to bring most of it home), but this one is a little unusual in that it’s a collection of fiction writing which apparently expresses the existentialist outlook. It certainly is old, fragile and crumbly (as are many paperbacks of its age – it was published in 1973) but a casual glance at the blurb sent me off digging in my shelves and then pondering…

“Existential…” is edited by Frederick R. Karl and Leo Hamalian, and the blurb mentioned that they also edited a collection called “The Naked i”, also published by Picador, back in 1971. I knew I had owned this collection, picking it up in the late 1970s because it had a story by Sylvia Plath, and I was a bit vexed by the fact that I might have discarded it over the years in one of my periodic clear outs. A frantic rummage in the Plath shelves revealed the book in question, which brought a huge sigh of relief. I like the fact of having both of these companion collections, despite the fact that they have ageing brown pages and fragile spines – because the contents look inspiring, and reminded me of the vagaries of publishers and publishing, how authors can disappear by the wayside, and how mainstream publishing is perhaps less attuned to the individual and curious nowadays.

The Picador Brautigans from the late 1970s

When I look back to the late 1970s, which was the time I first had disposable income, so could buy books, it seems to me a time characterised by the spirit of adventure and exploration. I lived in a cold-water flat in Cheltenham for a while, and the local bookshop I hung about in most often was called Paperback Parade – and of course sold only paperbacks! They operated what was in effect a mini-Foyles system, and their stock was shelved according to publisher. I was often drawn to Picador Books, as their titles seemed exotic and a bit left-field – and in fact my first Richard Brautigan books were Picador editions from Paperback Parade’s shelves. Alas, however, if I look back to those days many of the small imprints seems to have disappeared, been swallowed up by larger operations or rather lost their individuality.

Yes – I have finally found the missing original “Dreaming of Babylon” which I had mislaid for the #1977Club…!

There was a sense back then (or at least so it seems to me) that publishers perceived their readers as having an intelligence and a wish to be stretched or provoked; smaller imprints appeared to have a genuine independence and a wish to push boundaries. Both of these collections are thought-provoking and wide-ranging, taking in authors from Tolstoy, de Sade, Dostoevsky, Borges and Kafka, up to Plath, Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Leonard Michaels and Ken Kesey. That heady and eclectic mix is maybe unusual and also a snapshot of the authors considered relevant at the time.

Authors do, of course, slip in and out of fashion; one that springs to mind is Alberto Moravia who’s been championed by Grant recently. And any number of women authors have disappeared under the radar; popular names during the last century, they’re now dismissed as perhaps not relevant, and it takes publishers like Virago, and more increasingly imprints like Persephone and Handheld, to bring them back into print. Those current small presses (and there are any number of them on my sidebar, and which I love), have rescued some real treasures and saved some amazing works from obscurity. Nevertheless, not everything is going to make it back into print; and I suppose what I’m actually saying is that it’s a good thing to hold onto the old, fragile and crumbly. Certainly, many books on my shelves are no longer available or harder to track down; so I think I’m going to have to check very carefully when I have any clear-outs and make sure I *really* want to get rid of a book, just in case I change my mind and find a replacement hard to source. There’s a lot to be said for hanging onto your own personal library! 😀