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Books on the shelf, books as a lifeline

When I moved back to America in 1992, I brought two small children, a desk that had belonged to T. S. Eliot, and a whole lot of books. The kids came with me, by plane, but the books and the desk went by boat. The kids and I had dropped into rural life in upstate New York with a bump, and my life was upside-down. But six weeks later, things brightened. I got a packet of shipping documents in the mail, and my books were waiting for me at the New Jersey docks.

I rented a little UHaul truck. I was new to the east coast and had no idea where I was going, but I arranged extra hours with the babysitter and set off, trundling down two-lane country roads through wheat and corn fields and then along the foul-smelling Jersey Turnpike.

At the shipping office, I handed over the bills of lading, worrying that I would be asked to pay something extra in order to get my boxes. The clerk read through the forms, picked up his stamp, and read aloud the numbers for the modest cubic volume of my shipment and then its weight. He frowned, shook his head, and repeated the numbers. I got nervous and started adding up the money in my bank account and what I needed for rent and groceries.

“What’s in them boxes?” he demanded.

“Books,” I said.

“Books?” He stared at me. “Lady, whaddya want with that many books?”

Fast forward to 2016. I’m in a different house, over the border in Massachusetts, and in Manhattan much of the time. Last week I decided I was going to start organizing my books by getting all the ones piled on the floor onto shelves. The China books, the business books – those are from recent years. But as I worked, dusting shelves and making space, tossing a few books into a giveaway pile, I started seeing old friends, books that crossed the ocean with me, some several times. The little red hardbound Tess of the d’Urbervilles that I finished in tears on a bus somewhere in Cornwall during the summer of 1977. A set of books about Greek drama by H. R. Kitto, a famous British scholar who taught one year at UC Santa Barbara and who gave me an ‘A’ when I was sure I didn’t deserve it. Books by Marvin Mudrick, given to me when I dropped into his office to talk – books that Berkshire will soon be republishing and that have brought me back into contact, and fellowship, with other students who used to hang out in his office.

Books Are Not Life But Then What IsFor many of us, books are a source of life, and sometimes a lifeline. Our love of books fires what we do at Berkshire Publishing, and I’m thrilled by the way we’re expanding this year, with the Mudrick collection, the first English edition of a famous 18th-century culinary manual, and much more. We’ve had the pleasure, over the years, of publishing short pieces by many brilliant authors, so it’s a natural transition to begin publishing more for the general reader as well as students and scholars.

In addition to looking for great books to publish, I’ve become more attuned to great readers. I used to read more books than I do now. I sometimes think that it’s because there were better books coming out, but then I look at Kerry Brown, who is the most productive writer and serious reader I know today.

Kerry’s reading may rival that of literary critic Marvin Mudrick, whose erudition tormented his detractors. Here’s what Roger Sale wrote: “When Mudrick is not writing he must be reading; there simply are not enough hours in the day for anything else. Not long ago the man whose office is next to mine had his fifth novel reviewed by Mudrick in The Hudson Review. Mudrick had not liked the novel very much, but, not content with that, he had gone back and read Wagoner’s first four before describing his opinion of the fifth. Wagoner was understandably not very happy at Mudrick’s dislike of his novels, but more than that he was dumbfounded by Mudrick’s procedure. I could only tell him that this was just like Mudrick, and also that I too knew no one else who would read five novels by a man in order to be able to level against one in just the terms he wanted.”

Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese BiographyKerry Brown, as I hope you know already, is the editor-in-chief the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, as well ast the forthcoming second edition of theBerkshire Encyclopedia of China. He runs the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, travels and speaks all over the world, turns out his own new books regularly (the latest is CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping). Yet he manages to read, and read, and read.

Fortunately for us, he also find time to write short reviews of what he reads, and has generously agreed to let us consolidate and publish those reviews, the latest of which include reviews of of Second-Hand Time and Mirror, Mirror: The Use and Abuse of Self-Love.

Inspired by Kerry (and Marvin Mudrick), Berkshire will now be publishing book reviews and reading lists, too – a natural evolution, given that our encyclopedias include massive bibliographies compiled by the leading experts in the field. We have occasionally distilled that data into lists such as the twenty-one most-cited books on sustainability and we recently ventured to list the best books about China. Your suggestions are most welcome!

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