A few stand-out books from the past year

I started this project a year ago, end of October 2015, with just the thought that it would be interesting to read all the books in the Biblioteca Adelphi series in order, and since I read quite fast, it would be a few years of reading, and we’d see what we saw.

It became more than that, by the time I wrote about what I was doing, last August, and since then, again, it has taken on a completely new form and shape.  I am still reading the books in order, but a bit slower than I initially thought, as I am delving much deeper into history and context, and a different type of understanding. I’ve been writing about it, but haven’t nailed it, so it hasn’t posted up yet. Sometimes the writing explains itself to me, and the output is in the process. So, I keep writing.

The past year, Nov-Nov, now, in my world, Adelphi Time, perhaps I shall call it, I read 341 books. Probably the most I’ve ever read in a year, though maybe not by much. I usually average around 300. The difference this year was the level of direction and focus, and the sheer weight of non-fiction, which was probably about 80%.

There is so much I could say about so many, yet here is only a small bit on a few of the stand-outs:

  1. Youth Without God,  Ödön von Horváth, 1937: This book reminded me of an early 20thc European literature that was short, to the point, and not about the author. A teacher’s students begin to change with the sentiment of the times and it his story of how to be the adult in a world in which the children begin to believe in the Fatherland and they begin to mirror the behaviors of their fathers and their state. Reading this last fall, I can remember being struck that Americans needed to take a serious look at what was happening in the country and for what one would be responsible, within oneself and in the broader world.  Which made this book feel both important and forgotten.
  2. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape PainterCésar Aira, 2000: This book had nothing to do with the project, but it invoked Alexander von Humboldt on the back cover, and it was pretty and short, and seemed like a good Adelphi sorbet course. I still find it hard to explain what the magic is, and find myself just handing it to people, “read this,” and letting it go at that. The visible world is made more visible in his sweet prose, it is straightforward, and engaged with the intellectual and artistic worlds. This doesn’t necessarily explain what about it is different, but perhaps this difficulty to define the magic is exactly the indicator of what magic it is.
  3. Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, completed in 1960 and ‘arrested’ by the KGB, finally seen in print in the 1980s, after Grossman’s death, Robert Chandler, trans: This book covers everything that goes with Stalin and Hitler, the small, familiar, day to day realities of a life in a totalitarian regime. Which says so little about how this book as well, grips you, and carts you off til the dawn hours, refusing to let go, as you ponder how you will make it through another day without sleep. I had read Grossman’s Everything Flows, which is also gorgeous, but the fraying of the edges are quite visible, as he died before he finished it, and so I picked up the 800+ pages of Life and Fate, to get a sense of what he was like when more polished, and that was that. (Oh also, I found really enjoy Robert Chandler’s translations from the Russian, and his commentaries.)
  4. Manuscript Found in the Saragossa, Jan Potocki, 1804: This book is the third on The Adelphi List and I found it so utterly agonizing to read the entire book that I am fascinated enough to include it on this list. It certainly stands out! It gives me a sense that I have entirely missed something, that it was not engrossing.  It has all manners of topics I am interested in and usually enjoy, the gothic, the inquisition, kabbala, adventure, danger, swords, seduction, but no. It took me three weeks of enforced agony (“you have to read 100 pages before dinner or you don’t get dinner”). It reminded me a bit of The Canterbury Tales, but with a whole lot more sex and things going awry, enough so, that I went back and re-read The Canterbury tales. If you read it and enjoy it, or not, let me know. My fascination is not dimming.
  5. Conversations in Sicily, Elio Vittorini, serial 1938-9, book 1941, Alane Salierno Mason, trans. 2000:  One of the stunning things about the beauty of this book is the language he is using, in the 1930s. It would be stunning if written now, the prose and structure, the language. Salierno Mason’s translation is gorgeous, one of the examples of art entwining two elements and creating more than is expected. The book itself is political and personal, written and published in the time of the censors, so the constraints force what is to be understood beneath the language and the langour of the Sicilian heat, but it is there, racing the narrow gauge tracks,  heading into the hills.
  6. The Story of my People, Edoardo Nesi, 2011, trans Antony Shugaar: This is a short and heart-breaking tale of the destruction of the textile industry in  northern industry. The post-war period, the ‘recovery’ that was meant to open Italy to a broader market tore down centuries of family business and village life, and Nesi’s tale breaks your heart with it. The personal bits are better than when he attempts to expand to a global view, but even with those, the rest is more than worth the read. And Mr Shugaar is one of my favorite translators, usually translating mysteries and police procedurals, which Italy does well.
  7. Wandering Jew: The Search for Joseph Roth, Dennis Marks, 2016: This book is physically gorgeous, the red cloth cover, the interior map to orient the reader, the texture of the pages; I can’t be certain I didn’t love the object so much that it colours the feel of the text. However, what Marks’ has done in this little book is much of what I am doing for all the authors on The Adelphi List which really catch my heart: tracing their worlds, their paths, the creation of their selves, and the mysteries that they present to the world, these mysteries which create meaning, in these artifacts they leave us. Marks’ long time fascination with Joseph Roth is pulled beautifully through the book, and if you have read Roth you can follow the untruths you knew he was telling into a deeper space, a contemplative space, with Mr. Marks. If you haven’t read Roth, read some of his first, perhaps The Radetzky March and The Hotel Years would give a quick sense of his extremes.
  8. Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900-1920: Art, Life & Culture, John E Bowlt, 2008: A gorgeous survey of the arts of this period, their culture and interconnections. Particularly gorgeous for me, as with all the history and culture I am reading for the project, I can follow all the tendrils out into the world. It is also just a gorgeous representation of artwork that I have never seen personally.

And three that I seem to toss in my bag and carry around a lot, and read and read and read, and I won’t say more than that.

  1. The Complete Essays 1973-1991, Luigi Ghirri
  2. Ardor, Roberto Calasso (trans. Dixon)
  3. What Color is the Sacred, Michael Taussig

screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-11-06-58I am a long way from reading books in the 500s and 600s. 2018, I’d guess.

But I can’t keep myself from buying the Adelphi books for the beauty. I only buy Adelphi if the book was originally written in Italian, or if it hasn’t been translated into English (Hello Sándor Márai!) and it makes most sense to read it in Italian.

Most of my Italian books come from Rizzoli. Particularly on rainy days when I feel out of sorts, it is nice to swing through and see if they have anything I do not yet own. I thought maybe the newer ones would be there (Landolfi, Gaddo) but no luck. Sciascia, however, had appeared. He wasn’t there a few weeks ago.

screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-11-12-08 This cover is by Alberto Savinio, called Atlantide, from 1930-31. It’s in a private collection, which makes this even more interesting. Whose, Mr Calasso? Whose collection? Alberto Savinio is also an author published by Adelphi, in the Biblioteca and the Piccola series, among others. 23 books, to date. He composed operas. Who was this man? I’ll get to that later, in my growing social graphs, he is a fascinating center of many nets.

screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-11-12-28This is by Giuseppe Modica, called Palatino, it is from 2007. Sicilian, it seems, from Trapani, and his work is lovely. I particularly like his grids of windows and floors.

I wonder how his work and his existence fits into the fabric of Adelphi. I don’t know, except to say that when I map the cover artists over time, some one in that organization has a fabulous eye both for what Will Become and for the connection between cover and text.

More threads to pull at.


Adelphi has published 14 books so far this year.

This morning I was looking at the latest, Gadda and Landolfi. I am secretly pleased when they publish Italian authors, as I have taken to popping in the Rizzoli and buying them. I am far from reading them, but the pleasure in owning the editions combined with the belief that by the time I get to the mid 600s my Italian will be so much more fluent that I may understand even the Gadda.

04bb59d7a5932e3f58a50b99654a1e89_w240_h_mw_mh_cs_cx_cyOk, well, in Gadda’s case Italian language fluency alone won’t help me. I need a handful of dialects, and understanding of their relationships, understanding of Italian language context, word usage, and levels of politeness. I may never understand Gadda — but if you do, I may come sit by you and ask you endless questions — but this is not the worst thing ever. At least I know I don’t understand it.

[Gadda cover image: Luciano Bonacini, Impera… è il sandalo che fa per voi (ca 1939). Collezione Salce, MIBAC, Soprintendenza per i beni storici, artistici ed etnoantropologici per le province di Venezia, Belluno, Padova e Treviso, in deposito presso i Musei Civici di Treviso.]


Creation and consideration

If you follow my instagram feed, you’ve been watching me build out studio space, so The Adelphi Project has room of its own.  The space has belong to two friends before me, in an artist’s building in LIC. screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-3-36-41-pm Paul passed it to Jenn, and Jenn to me, when she moved away a few weeks ago.

There is something about a space whose history is known.  I started with a beautiful light-filled room, one which I knew had spent years full of love and creativity, and to this amorphous soup of history, I will add my own.

The first thing I moved in was the books. All of the books, which had been spread in four locations – one apartment, one house, one storage space and one car.  There are a lot of screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-3-38-23-pmthem, there needs to be fewer, but it’s a start. I bought bookshelves. Clearly, I discovered, not enough. More shall be arriving in a few weeks.

I created a second chalk wall, as I’ve discovered I like to write on the walls, so I can sit with a coffee and ponder the information I’ve put up, and consider how it flows togescreen-shot-2016-10-26-at-3-36-29-pmther, what it means, what it is missing. (See the previous post for the current Russian wall, which is in my flat.)

What I haven’t yet put in my studio is any technology beyond an old school radio. I have books, paper, chalk, pens. And the radio.

I find I am considering leaving it this way, devoid of wifi, computers, printers, and the general tools of this modern era.

What would happen, I wonder, if all the creation came from my mind and my hands?  If I felt no pressure for speed, or connection, if the work unraveled as it unraveled, into what ever form happens to be around me.  Compelling.

The project is interesting, because the output doesn’t want to be words, or not words alone.  I find myself creating in other forms, so perhaps what it needs, for now, is this space, to fill in whatever it wishes to be.

One of the joys of this project has always been that I don’t know what it is, where it is going, what it will be. This space without computers seems to further that, something hums along, helps me to see, something happy, something analog.


More Russians

I’ve made some progress, reading, but more, perhaps in the  tracking.  (I also seem to be collecting chaos at the bottom of the wall).  As I said, the ones with the tick marks are on the List, the others, context. unnamedI am still amazed by the aggregations of brilliance. 1856-1907 sees a lot of brilliant writers born. I need to map this for other nations, to see if it is due to the size of the country, or if there was something specific to place and time. There is an early bit too, with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Lermontov born in just a few years.

I’ve been collecting some folks on the top left, publishers and editors mentioned in occasional forwards, and ‘thaw’ authors suggested by a friend. I haven’t decided if I want to include them in the main list or not, yet.  Or perhaps its a space issue, with the list.

I still don’t know nearly enough. Vasily Grossman still makes my heart thump, but there is much to read. After a friend’s book launch celebration last week, I added in a forgotten Bulgakov. It’s been so long since I’ve read him, I want to do that right now. It is interesting, though, that in all the lists of authors I’ve been pulling and books on Russian lit, he is never included. Why is this?

And finally, and perhaps where I should have started, I still struggle to ‘feel’ what it would be like to be an unperson, and why the concept of posthumous rehabilitation resonated with those who were left behind. I keep reading, hoping, like in most foreign languages, that one day the concept will make sense, absorbed, at last, into my consciousness, where translation is no longer required, it has become visceral, and thus, real.


The Russians

I am starting to read the Russians. Earlier in the project, I read Leskov’s The Enchanted Wanderer (#280), which requires so much context, that I didn’t feel I had done it justice. After a chat with a Russian friend, I decided I would at some point have a ‘Russian Period’ and dig into them all as well as re-immerse myself in Russian History, which has been to the wayside for more than a decade.

I read Grossman’s Everything Flows a few days ago, and am beginning to track the history and authors on my wall. I have a right column to add, of the Adelphi proper Russian authors. They are marked upon paper, but need to be transfered. I sit with my morning coffee and ponder this view, as the sofa sits across from my chalkwall.


The history — what can I say? It is intense, dismal, overwhelming in scope, at times. To even imagine letting 5 million people starve to death, in a few years, imagine if most of NYC starved to death?

There are 26 Russian authors, or more precisely, authors who write in Russian, nationality is still too complex to be a simple categorization. Russian Empire, Russian Federation, Soviet Union, Russia SFSR, and those born to Russian parents outside Russian lands, Ukrainians, and on it goes.

Next week I shall spread the Russian maps of these times, and the books and stories and poetry across the studio, and begin to consume it and digest it as a chunk, to see if I can experience something beyond the points in time.

Getting back to the list

I have been moving things about for the new studio space, and haven’t been attending to writing.  I am reading very out of order, because I can’t recall what I own (and my spreadsheet, I think, is incorrect). So the later I read, the more sure I am I do not have these books.   I am trying to get back on track to the book-a-day plan as well.  So far this week:

  • Hindoo Holiday, J.R. Ackerley (651)
  • Everything Flows, Vasily Grossman (572)
  • Dirty Snow, Simenon (240)
  • The Widow Couderc, Simenon (277)
  • A Lost Lady, Willa Cather (223)

Books weekending Sept 18

I am finally getting to go back to the newer acquisitions and fill in the reading gaps. This week:

  • The Crock of Gold, James Stephens, published by Adelphi in 1969, originally published in 1912. Book #28. Stephens is Irish and I find this rather delicious. Irony, fantasy, philosophy.
  • Macunaima, Mario de Andrade, published by Adelphi in 1970, originally published in 1928. Book #32. de Andrade was a Brasilian, and the book is magical realism. It has lovely memories for me, of when I studied Brasilian Portuguese and of the folk tales we would read in class. Andrade was a musicologist and folklorist of some note, and a leader in the Brasilian Modernist movement.

Reading the catalog

I finally posted a bit on what the project is! At least, what it is for the moment. Original was on Medium, I’ve included it all below.

There are few publishing houses which can make one feel enchanted, and they don’t come along very often. (I’ve ‘met’ two others in my lifetime.) To create such a mystery requires foresight and intent, yet to understand this, what is one to do?

To be enchanted by a catalog, there is no better choice than Biblioteca Adelphi. Eclectic, erudite, expansive — each book explores the great questions of humankind — Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human? What is my purpose? How did the world come to be? What does it mean to have a god? Is there a god? As well, smaller questions — Should I hate my father? Why is the world trying to kill me? What are other cultures like? Whom do I love?

Shelves of Biblioteca Adelphi editions — sadly not (yet) mine. I find the array beautiful.

The majority of books in the series were published in translation to Italian; of the 653 books published to date, only a few over 100 were originally written in Italian. Many of these books were first introduced to Italy by Adelphi. There are over 30 source languages. It is an incredible legacy and a fascinating series of choices, an expression and choice of a culture, perhaps the creation of a canon. I decided I would read all the books, in order, as many as possible in the original language, some, also in Italian.

Curing the chalkboard wall I created in my studio, to map the ideas and histories of the project.

It is, perhaps, a type of madness, to read 653 books in the order in which the publisher chose to publish them. However, I am certain there is something in the experience, in the act, something perhaps greater than the sum of the parts. It can be seen as a list or a map, as a palimpsest, a mosaic, or a magic spell. It may be a zone of the unknown whose enchantment can be felt only by entering. It is certainly a particular view into the mysteries of life, across time, across place, across culture. There is something so compelling, to the books and to their collection. I look at them on the shelf, in order, in my studio, and marvel at who sits next to whom.

One small slice. Tutuola and Roth, Cioran and Daumal. Simenon and Satie.

The Adelphi Edizioni was started in 1962, with the first of Biblioteca Adelphi series published in 1965. These books come from an amazing array of genres including literature, philosophy, science, poetry, science fiction, religious texts, travel literature and mysteries. In 1965 Biblioteca Adelphi’s first release was The Other Side, by an Austrian author, Alfred Kubin. A strange sci-fi novel, at once dystopian and utopian, it is an interesting stake for the first of the ‘good’ and ‘singular’ books. From there 1965 rounds out with three authors: Edmund Gosse (British biography), Jan Potocki (a Polish Count who wrote a surrealist Spanish adventure story, in French) and Antonin Artaud (French diary of a mystical drug trip in Mexico). It is a curious start and it gets even more curious from there.

Calasso discusses the philosophy behind the house in his short collection of essays, The Art of the Publisher, the ideals of Bazlen and Foà and Olivetti, the founders. It was this book that spurred me to ask what I would learn, what it would be like, to go back to the beginning of Adelphi and read all the books in order. One night, I stayed up late and translated the catalog. I pulled all the records in Italian, and added two additional languages: English, and the original language the book was written in. The next day I began haunting the used book stores of New York City to find the books I needed. And thus began The Adelphi Project.

Bazlen and Calasso, long ago.

I began to read the books in order and quickly realized I needed additional context. I needed to understand the context of each book — when and where it was written, why, what could have been the ‘singular’ experience that inspired its creation; I needed to understand the history of Italy and how these books were published when they were, starting in the 1960s, a time of upheaval, the country barely 100 years old. I needed the histories of the authors, the places where the books were written, the time periods, the friendships, and the connections.; and I needed to better understand Calasso himself. In order to understand Calasso, I needed to go back to the classic Vedic texts, the Rigveda, and Sanskrit, a language that creates a shape for the languages that follow.

Calasso surrounded by books, as we all wish to be!

73 books in (and with an additional 128 non-catalog books, read for context), I begin to see the shape of the shadow which is cast by this Biblioteca Adelphi. I think it is more a mosaic than a map. But it is early yet, and I’m not looking for a plot, so much as a cosmology, a mythology, some combinatorial chaos which writes a meaning of life, one, many, the mind seeking a high order of consciousness, through that which it experiences itself, and through the experiences of others.

I began with no idea of what the output would be, and as I work, I find it is myriad. It has a daily instagram and tumblr diary of what I read and what I learn. I am writing essays about the strange connections across time and place, about topics that got lost, about the different meanings I can find in the project, the people, the house, and Calasso. I am creating a series of short films. Some of these books seem to have never been translated into English. I need to do this.

A new morning and the wall is cleared. I begin again. Across the bottom are the catalog books, to the left are histories of Italy and Vedic/Sanskrit materials. The right holds histories of modernism, and biographies and letters of connected artists. There are history stacks of countries, notably Austria and Germany, where many of the books originated.

In some ways, it eats everything it comes across and transforms it, my life, my ideas, the conversations I have with others, the books I read. The ideal is that it transforms and illuminates, that it pulls from the past to light the future, that it reminds us of the things we haven’t recently looked at, be it literature we no longer read, or truths we forget to ponder.

Original languages, doing the math

There are more than 30 languages which the books were originally written in, not accounting for differences in country of origin (Austria vs Germany, Switzerland vs France) or hundreds of years. It is a pretty uneven split.

Top languages are English(161), French(111), German(103), and Italian(103). I might be slightly wrong on those, with some its actually hard to tell.  Eventually I will have to verify, but it will be easier to do when I am in Italy, and I start tracking the translators of all the books. 47 in Russian, 17 in Spanish — almost all Borges.

Three greeks: Attik, Homeric and Demotic. And a handful of one off languages: Swedish, Sami, Serbian, Pali, Norwegian, Irish, Icelandic, Georgian, Egyptian, Afrikaans.

The religious texts are more confusing, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Latin, Greek — they were translated and the version we have may not have been the original language.

So, I can read atleast 400 or so in the original languages, I can work through some others, with dictionaries — Latin and Portuguese and Spanish in particular. The big losses, for me, is that I cannot read Russian, Hungarian or German.