Four volumes from the 'Storybook ND' series published by New Directions.

Here are four of the six books published in New Directions' Storybook ND series last year. These are short texts in un-jacketed glossy hardcover volumes whose design is vaguely reminiscent of certain children’s books. Each one, however, administers a small dose of more-or-less serious literature. “Storybook ND: the pleasure of reading a great book from cover to cover in an afternoon” as they put it. I’d learned about the series while it was still in preparation and was ready when the first batch were issued to place some orders. Having a slight preference for short & sharp books over big & baggy ones; and already being a fan of a few of the featured authors, it was an initiative unusually well-tailored to my tastes.

Given my proclivities for the somewhat obscure and unpopular, I have to wonder how well it will thrive, and how much more the series might grow. A further two volumes, at least, have appeared this year, which, I suppose, means at least some other readers must be ready to cough up the $17.95 (or equivalent) per volume, which is by no means the very cheapest means of obtaining an afternoon’s entertainment.

Yoko Tawada was the only one of the four authors above whose work I hadn’t previously encountered. 3 Streets comprises a trio of diverting and occasionally thought-provoking ghost stories set in her current home city of Berlin. I must have read a dozen or so of César Aira’s numerous books: while The Famous Magician isn’t among my very favourites, I nevertheless enjoyed it a good deal. László Krasznahorkai’s Spadework for a Palace is a characteristically intense and enthrallingly splenetic piece, whose obsessive narrator fixates on his famous namesake (Herman Melville) and the unbuilt works of an architect called Lebbeus Woods. My favourite of the set was Helen DeWitt’s The English Understand Wool, which, like her novel The Last Samurai has to do (in part at least) with the benefits of an unconventional education - for me it was an untrammelled joy to read.