Ex Libris: November Books
By Steve Donoghue
For well over a century at least, publishers have tended to load the month of November with their “heaviest,” most serious books. You might get a work of military history in May, but you’ll get a whole West Point of them in November. You might get a single Founding Father biography in June, but you’ll see an entire Constitutional Convention of them in November.
I’ve always thought this was a silly concept. I’ve lost count of how many readers I’ve known who brought War and Peace to their seaside summer vacation, or lugged along an English-language translation of Proust to a Springtime getaway. Sure, a dark, cold, rainy day might prompt some readers to curl up with a cozy mystery (or, in my own case, a million-time re-read – for me, rain hitting the window panes basically equates with revisiting 221b Baker Street or the Seeonee wolf pack or Castle Dracula). But in my experience, readers tackle “heavy” books at every time of year. They certainly don’t see some big new book on a favorite subject, whether it’s Sitting Bull or the Battle of Thermopylae, and say, “Boy, I sure wish it was November so I could read that.”
Nevertheless, silly or not, that’s the custom of our literary country, so I thought we’d look at some of the big, heavy new releases you’ll be seeing this November in your bookstore. And what could be more serious than the potential destruction of all life on Earth? That’s not the central point of Super Volcanoes by Robin George Andrews (new from WW Norton), but it’ll certainly be on your mind while you’re reading. Andrews writes very engagingly about what volcanoes are, what forms them, what happens inside them, and where else in the solar system they exist. It’s all fascinating, but the bits about what would happen to terrestrial life if a super volcano erupted … well, it’ll haunt you.
And where would this “heavy,” “serious” November be without the Second World War? November has plenty of them, including Island Infernos by John McManus (Caliber), the second volume of his series of books about the US Army in the Pacific Theater during the war. This new book is set in 1944 and centers on the grueling ordeal of ‘island-hopping’ on the path to conquering the home islands of Japan, and as in its predecessor, Fire and Fortitude, it’s full of well-drawn personal portraits.
There’s also Hitler’s American Gamble by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, new from Basic Books, which centers on Hitler’s seemingly inexplicable decision to declare war on the US in December of 1941, immediately after the US declared war on Japan in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The authors here explore that decision in an attempt to demystify it, an attempt to portray HItler’s decision as an outlandish calculation but essentially a rational one. Will you be convinced? Apparently, major publishers tend to think you can only ponder such imponderables in the month of November.
November is also the month for biographies, and there’s hardly a grander biographical enterprise in our era than John Richardson’s multiple-volume life of Picasso (true, there’s Robert Caro’s ongoing biography of Lyndon Johnson, but at this point does anybody really believe he’ll finish it?). This month that massive enterprise comes to a close with A Life of Picasso IV: The Minotaur Years 1933-1943, and this final volume is every bit as magisterial as all the ones that came before it. If you started this journey all the way back in 1991, this is a must-read volume for you.
For the aforementioned mystery-novel fans, the books of Patricia Highsmith likely constitute must-read volumes, and Liveright this month is serving up a great big biographical volume to complement all those great novels of hers: Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995, edited by Anna Von Planta. This volume takes a bit of time to get to work on you, but soon enough you’ll be totally caught up in the internal (and social) dramas of this hyper-intelligent and caustically self-critical writer. These diaries and notebooks make better reading about Highsmith than any actual biography of her ever written.
Two more “heavy” topics for you before we wrap things up this week! The first is The Rule of Laws by Fernanda Pirie, who’s a professor of the anthropology of law at the University of Oxford. In this book – generous, intelligent, hugely readable – she looks not only at the history of how humans have made laws over the last 4000 years but why they’ve made laws. The idea that laws are a society’s piecemeal attempts to express its own identity and values strikes me as fascinating, and this book explores that idea at very satisfying depths.
And speaking of depths (sorry – couldn’t resist!), the last November book we can mention this time around is Under Jerusalem by Andrew Lawler (Doubleday), about the last 150 years of archeological excavations being done in – and under – Jerusalem, the Holy City of three major (and often contentious) religions. Lawler is a terrific guide to all those hidden layers underneath one of the world’s most-visited cities; he explains the history, the science, and even the ideological stakes involved, and he does it all with wonderfully readable prose.
There are plenty more November titles than these, of course – thousands more. And plenty of those are exactly the kind of “heavy” titles publishers tend to reserve for the beginning of winter in the publishing world’s New York nerve center. The good news? There are plenty of “lighter” books coming out this month too – so you can save the “heavy” books for summertime, if the mood strikes you.