Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What's a first book? You'll know it when you've written it

Posted By on 03.06.13 at 10:28 AM

The Essence of Beeing
  • The Essence of Beeing
As a result of fundamentally different creative processes, two former Reader colleagues have just published books about sports. Mike Lenehan worked four years researching and writing Ramblers. Ted Cox reread old essays and culled the cream to come up with 1,001 Days in the Bleachers, but the anthology represents a quarter century of his sportswriting for the Reader.

To the satisfaction of both writers, their books will occupy shelf space in libraries. A library is what for authors passes as an afterlife—the place where, after the writer's dead and buried and the book's remaindered, the name and the work live on. Truth be told, libraries these days are known to box up seldom-circulated books and throw them out in favor of more space for computer terminals. But we won't dwell on that.

I asked Lenehan some questions about Ramblers for this week's column, and he discussed it in the familiar terms of a personal sea change. "Finishing my first book," he said, "gets me over a hurdle where I don't have to prove to myself I can do that." So I reminded him that Ramblers isn't his first book. In 1977, what I'm going to call the old Reader published its archetypal cover story, Lenehan's "The Essence of Beeing." It was an inquiry into apiarism that ran about 20,000 words, a trail few readers were expected to set out on. But what of it! Those who didn't would admire us for our presumption, and they would still have the theater reviews and classifieds; those who did would learn enough about bees to last a lifetime.

In 1984 Bob McCamant, a Reader founder and architect (its original art director), established Sherwin Beach Press, whose purpose was to not simply print nonfiction prose but exquisitely display it. In 1992 Sherwin Beach produced The Essence of Beeing, hand-printed and hand-bound, "numbered but not signed." The book is 45 pages long and costs $300. "Believe it or not," said Lenehan, "there are still a few copies available."

Sherwin Beach has a small list of titles. Reader material is favored. $144 a Month puts between covers a 1983 article written by Steve Bogira and photographed by Michael Tappin on Illinoisans trying to live on General Assistance. The book is 24 pages long and costs $450. Saving His Life tries to do justice to Lee Sandlin's two-part account of the life of his father-in-law, a Russian immigrant, by offering it with "photoetchings from family photographs . . . printed on Hosho, inset into the book in debossed panels," and in a "binding in Nigerian goatskin with endpapers of Japanese silk, housed in a silk drawstring bag." The price is $1,915.

(Sandlin also has a new book just out: Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers. For design flourishes, check out the deckle edge.)

At any rate, Lenehan doesn't think The Essence of Beeing counts as a book, at least not a you-finally-did-it first book. "I'd consider it a book if I'd written it for that purpose originally and I certainly don't want to diminish the beauty of Bob's creation," he said. "But if anybody asks if I've written a book before, I say no."

And yet, The Essence of Beeing did get Lenehan into heaven—that is, libraries. "Really cool libraries," he allowed, ones with rare-book collections that will never be boxed up and carried out. Like where? Lenehan wasn't sure, but he asked McCamant to send me a list. And it turned out The Essence of Beeing ensconced him in libraries at the University of Chicago, Oxford, Stanford, Columbia, and Cornell—just to name some of the coolest.

Ramblers will get him into and onto a lot more dens, bathrooms, and night tables.

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