A little over a decade ago, a forgotten book was suddenly remembered. Its second life began when a fiction writer referenced it in a book of her own. A blogger read the new book, then tracked down a copy of the old one, and wrote about all this on his Web site. An archivist read the blog post and e-mailed it to a small publisher. By 2009, Jetta Carletonâ€™s â€œThe Moonflower Vine,â€ first published in 1962, was back in print.
Most novels are forgotten. Glance at the names of writers who were famous in the nineteenth century, or who won the Nobel Prize at the beginning of the twentieth, or who were on best-seller lists just a few decades ago, and chances are that most of them wonâ€™t even ring a bell. When â€œThe Moonflower Vineâ€ resurfaced and ricocheted around the publishing world, it became an unlikely exception.
Whatâ€™s strange about the journey of that bookâ€”and about our moment in the history of publishingâ€”is that its rediscovery was made possible by an independent blogger, named Brad Bigelow. Bigelow, fifty-eight, is not a professional publisher, author, or critic. Heâ€™s a self-appointed custodian of obscurity. For much of his career, he worked as an I.T. adviser for the United States Air Force. At his home, in Brussels, Belgium, he spends nights and weekends scouring old books and magazines for writers worthy of resurrection.
â€œIt can just be a series of almost random things that can make the difference between something being remembered or something being forgotten,â€ Bigelow told me recently. On his blog, Neglected Books, he has written posts about roughly seven hundred booksâ€”impressive numbers for a hobbyist, though theyâ€™re modest next to the thousands of books we forget each year. â€œItâ€™s one little step against entropy,â€ he said. â€œAgainst the breakdown of everything into chaos.â€
Jane Smileyâ€™s 2006 book â€œ13 Ways of Looking at the Novelâ€ contains essays about a hundred works of fiction. Bigelow recognized ninety-nine of them; â€œThe Moonflower Vine,â€ about a family that lives on a farm in Missouri, was the exception. He was probably not alone in that, but he seems to have been just about the only person who did something about it. â€œNot one editor in New York, to my knowledge, was moved to seek out the novel,â€ Robert Nedelkoff, the archivist who e-mailed Bigelowâ€™s blog post to an editor at the Chicago Review Press, told me. That editor, Yuval Taylor, made an offer to Carletonâ€™s descendants for republishing rights. (Carleton, who was born in 1913 and worked in copywriting, died in 1999. She never published another novel.) They consulted a writer friend, who called his agent, who landed a deal with Harper Perennial. â€œThe Moonflower Vineâ€ was reborn.
The new edition began with a foreword from Smiley. â€œMost novelists, no matter how popular, fall into obscurity,â€ she wrote. The edition also included, as a postscript, Bigelowâ€™s 2006 review. â€œThis novel,â€ he wrote, â€œthough long out of print, continues to hold a fond place in the hearts of readers whoâ€™ve discovered it.â€
Bigelowâ€™s interest in obscure books took hold nearly forty years ago. In the nineteen-seventies, he was given a scholarship to study math at the University of Washington, where he spent long hours in the university library. â€œYou can only take so much of that,â€ he said. When he needed a break from differential equations, he would wander the aisles, pulling books at random off the shelves. Some of his discoveries were unpleasantâ€”one book, with a plain black cover and brittle pages, was full of pictures of dead bodies. â€œI figured out it was actually propaganda,â€ Bigelow said; the gruesome images, which supposedly depicted violence committed by Polish soldiers, were meant to justify Germanyâ€™s 1939 invasion of Poland.
But Bigelow found enough literary ore to keep him prospecting. One of his favorite books is W. V. Tilsleyâ€™s â€œOther Ranks,â€ an account of everyday life for soldiers in the First World War. Tilsley wrote with a simplicity and directness that amazed Bigelow. When he realized there were only a few hundred copies printed, he made a photocopy of the entire book. (He still has that photocopy, along with half a garage full of dusty books.)
Bigelow gained early experience with the Internet after he joined the Air Force; his work on communications systems gave him access to cutting-edge computers. He joined a forum, called the Exotica Mailing List, devoted to obscure music and even built an early Web site called Space Age Pop. â€œItâ€™s kind of been a tendency of mine all my life, which is to look off the beaten track,â€ Bigelow said. When he turned his attention from obscure music to obscure books, he gained an eye for unjustly forgotten literature. He often looks for a mismatch between the content of a book and the way itâ€™s marketed. (â€œThe Moonflower Vineâ€ was marketed as a romance novel, but it contains â€œbarely a lick of romance,â€ he said.)
â€œThe Internetâ€™s a big place,â€ Bigelow remarked, noting that, for readers, this is both a blessing and a curse. The online universe is vast enough that almost any subject can attract devoted fans. On the other hand, thereâ€™s simply too much out there and too few curatorsâ€”there are more needles waiting to be found, but the haystack has become a mountain. Bigelow has taken to avoiding books heâ€™s heard of. â€œI do try to stick pretty religiously to books that are out of print,â€ he said. â€œIf itâ€™s in print, somebodyâ€™s reading it.â€ And if somebodyâ€™s reading it, itâ€™s not neglected enough to need Bigelowâ€™s help.
In recent years, many publishers have come to the same realization as Bigelowâ€”that the graveyard of literary history includes many works worth resurrecting. â€œItâ€™s a pretty striking change in the last decade or so,â€ Edwin Frank, the editor of the Classics series from New York Review Books, told me. Frank believes that publishers have the power to change the canon, but only if theyâ€™re truly open to lesser-known titles. â€œThose books are there to search you out,â€ he said. â€œThey can exist to change your mind about what a book can be.â€
Paradoxically, Frank added, the new interest in neglected books can be seen as a reaction to the decline of book culture. Books used to be a centerpiece of both education and entertainment, but television and the Internet have challenged that role. Frank believes that among book lovers, â€œthereâ€™s a kind of sitting and lookingâ€”a kind of assessing the cultureâ€ going on. Weâ€™ve become more aware of what could be lost forever.
Thereâ€™s an idealism in the attempt to bring back forgotten books. The University of Chicago Press named its series of reissued books Phoenix. Melville House, an independent publisher in New York, called its series Neversinkâ€”as if publishers are a life raft for authors who have fallen into the river of forgetting. Itâ€™s an apt metaphor. One of Bigelowâ€™s favorite rediscoveries is â€œGentleman Overboard,â€ a 1937 novella by Herbert Clyde Lewis, a son of Russian immigrants. Lewis grew up in New York, became a journalist, and eventually wrote Hollywood screenplays. The bookâ€™s protagonist is a steamship passenger named Henry Preston Standish, who slips on a spot of oil and tumbles overboard. â€œGentleman Overboardâ€ is a record of his final day and his fading hopes of rescue.
â€œHe was such a puny bundle of life in such an immense world,â€ Lewis writes. The steamship Arabella sails on. â€œStandish, floating in the water, concentrated his thoughts on the people aboard the Arabella and as a result fell into the common error of believing the converse was true.â€
Itâ€™s a funny feeling, reading a forgotten book about a forgotten man. The most accessible online edition was scanned from an old library copy, which was last checked out in 1950. Thatâ€™s the same year that Lewis died, of a heart attack, at the age of forty-one. But Bigelow has saved â€œGentleman Overboardâ€ from going completely underwater: a few years ago, he recommended it to a publisher in Argentina, who decided to release a Spanish translation. A publisher in Jerusalem followed with a Hebrew version. (The road back into print can be circuitous.)
In the middle of the book, Standish watches as the Arabellaâ€™s frothy wake dissolves back into seawater. â€œIt was one thing to swim in the foaming wake and another to bob gently in the steady sea,â€ Lewis writes. â€œOne was ephemeral, part of the life Standish knew, a thing created by something that was created by man. The other was eternal and incomprehensible.â€ Reading a forgotten book can seem a little like communing with ghosts; it helps acquaint you with oblivion. Despite his best efforts, most of the books that Bigelow has written about remain obscure. â€œItâ€™s one speck in the universe,â€ Bigelow said. Itâ€™s a comforting speck, though. No individual can condemn a book to obscurity on his own; forgetting is a communal act. But rescuing a book is a different story. Sometimes, it only takes one reader to remember.