I hadn't given much thought to Faber Finds when they first emerged two years ago.
This is Faber's print on demand service for hundreds of their out-of-print titles, each with an automatically generated cover design and very small print runs. Click on the tag clouds and up come some real forgotten heroes, here's Essays & Prose. The Haunted Study by Peter Keating a book I still don't own because each time I bought it in a charity shop for 50p I could never resist then selling it on Amazon Marketplace where it regularly used to fetch £30.
Nor had I paid that much attention to the squiggles on the cover until I read this about the design process, which does indeed seem quite clever, but may perhaps have passed me by had I not done some digging around.
Reading back through the publicity at the time, there seems to have been some concern about whether this print-on-demand model would sell without a heavy presence on the bookshop shelves, and I have no idea whether it has done or not, but I suspect it may come into its own in the digital market. Though I know precious little about all this, an idle Amazon wander through the Faber Finds titles I have been reading suggests they are readily available for the new WiFi Kindle.
Don't let me even glimpse that gizmo. Moan and groan about e readers as plenty of people might, but I love my Sony e reader and the thought of a WiFi version...mmmm.
So I had the Faber Finds stocklist and chose a few titles from the hundreds available and then spent several hours rooted to the reading chair when they arrived. I had chosen a selection of books by Edward Thomas as I'm thinking I may focus on the War Poets for my Remembrance Reading this November, and I had always wanted to read Corduroy by Adrian Bell. I will have much to say about these soon but especially Corduroy, a book that has really touched my heart and readily found itself a comfortable spot on the Roger Deakin shelf.
The covers are minimalist, some may even say uninteresting, but then we are used to minimalist from Faber and in fact a close look reveals a unique sort of intricacy, so perhaps this is about a different style of book for a different generation of readers, and what an entertaining time I've had with a couple of my choices about Mass Observation.
Mass Observation was established on February 12th 1937, when a group of thirty people from a range of backgrounds agreed 'to set down plainly all that happened to them on that day.' At about the same time six observers of a different kind moved to live in a working-class quarter of a Lancashire cotton town; having given up their own jobs they would watch everyone else doing theirs and so the development of this massive sociological recording project began.
I'd heard of Mass Observation but didn't know too much about it, but having seen it in action in the Alan Bennett play Enjoy recently, Mass Observation - First Year's Work 1937-1938, an appraisal of that first year, has been a fascinating insight, not least because of the criticism the project garnered in the press at the time.
The New Statesman and Nation which had helped publicise the project turned on its heels and ran as time went on, becoming increasingly critical and hostile,
'finds it hard to imagine anything dottier'
The Church Times handed down their rather condescending verdict,
'Those who 'observe' will not generally be professional writers. either authors or journalists, but they will nevertheless, belong to the minority of the population which is articulate...'
Meanwhile a group called the intellectuals were openly hostile, feeling that Mass Observation
'is threatening their monopoly on portraying in various media, the human mind and body, human behaviour and feeling.'
To which Mass Observation responded,
'It is difficult to see how we can fail to annoy intellectuals until they realise that we are not doing their job at all... we venture to think that we shall be doing everyone a service by quite incidentally clarifying some of the issues between art, realism, real people, reality, real observation, and realist art.'
With notions of the 'observer as subjective camera' it was like a plus-ca-change-deja-vu moment all perhaps redolent of the old blogger versus critic debate, and doubtless more of the same up for debate at the PEN event this evening, but what a rich and fascinating source of information Mass Observation has proved to be in the years since and how many books has it spawned?
How far have we got with Nella Housewife 49 now?
Nella At War? Nella At Peace?
And who knows what a rich source the blogs may be in years to come for that access to the voice of the people. 'Mass Observation is concerned with an ordinary-eye view', and I was reminded of why everyone, bloggers and critics alike have something to offer in this world of books.
But perhaps it's also wise to remember that not everyone embraces the internet.
An Internet-Less Friend called in the other day, the one whose garden I raided for the Port Eliot Flower Show installation, and who had been thrilled to see us then get a mention in the Daily Telegraph which she'd kept for me. ILF still relies completely on the review pages and the radio for all her book recommends and she looked at me quite blankly when I said the word 'blog' and even more bemused when I tried to explain what it was, but she did leave very happily with a big box full of book recommends from me, all by writers she'd never heard of.