Melville House Publishing is one of the more visible young publishing houses, and for good reason. Having sprouted several years ago from the popular, fun, and often insightful blog MobyLives, Melville is the product of two somewhat ungainly forces: the desire to be a respected publisher, and the desire to be cool and trendy. Few publishers – or bookstores or journals or newspapers or any manner of publications, publishers, and retail stores – pull this off well, consistently, and cohesively; and Melville certainly struggles with this tiresome ordeal, in which "important" works may seem at odds with its largely hipster clientèle and their presumed interests: one senses in thus-stricken publications wearied attempts at being at once cheeky and in-tune with pop-culture criticism conflicting with ostensibly grander – and thus often outsize – stakes in establshing themselves as a source of great cultural and intellectual import. Melville has these problems; but it has more than enough virtues to make their tiresome self-consciousness burn away and leave truly terrific, unique titles in its wake.
Perhaps the most notable achievement of Melville is their commitment to highlighting otherwise overlooked and easily overlookable novellas. Their Art of the Novella and Contemporary Art of the Novella series are excellent; I'm always thrilled when a new title is released, and rarely am I cautious enough financially to not just go out and buy the latest release on the strength of their past ones, which offer all other ones great implicit recommendation. The works are immediately noticeable by their identifiable aesthetic; like New York Review Books, these two novella-centric series seem to seek to create, through their nearly uniform appearances, an egalitarian approach to the texts – by "branding" them so similarly – or an aesthetic stamp or brand on the texts themselves that qualifies them as "Melvillian": both have problematic implications, but they nonetheless look quite lovely, and this is enough to squelch any potential nagging disputes I could take with the method.
As for the novellas themselves: they're remarkable, quite simply. The range is tremendous and the quality universally good. I had never known that Samuel Johnson wrote any works of prose fiction before coming across their publication of his Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, a wonderfully dated, insightful, and often quite poignant parable of personal enlightenment. Cervantes' The Dialogue of the Dogs is a hilarious and ribald tale that, as with Cervantes' more famous work, seems extraordinary in its blatant and mischievous disregard of al literary conventions, no matter that the ones he most grievously dishonors had not been quite codified yet. They also offer a new translation of what to me is one of the most unimpeachable works of literature ever written, The Death of Ivan Ilych, as well as several single editions of stories and novellas taken from larger works – Joyce's The Dead, Turgenev's First Love – none of which seems to quite merit its own new publication – Why buy "The Dead" in absence of the rest of Dubliners? Why buy "The Death of Ivan Illych" when you could get the, to my untrained sensibilities, preferable translation in the always reliable Viking Portable Library edition, which also includes a tremendous array of other works written during his lifetime? – but is fun to look through, anyway. The Contemporary series introduced me to the work of Alejandro Zambra, through his terrific novella Bonsai, and I now await all future English translations of his work with great anticipation. Tao Lin's much-anticipated Shoplifting from American Apparel will soon be released in this edition. Each work in these two series is deserving of mention, and they have both introduced me to writers whom I now adore; few publishers can claim – by sheer virtue of the quality of their publications and the "implicit recommendations" thereof – to have done this as effectively and thrillingly as Melville.
I am currently trying to track down a copy of Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, in which Kitty Burns Florey discusses her love of penmanship and seems to strive for a means of coping with its rapid disintegration from a largely technological Western word. It seems lovely and appropriately nostalgic, and a kind of quick, abashed ego trip for those who similarly cherish the telling nuances of handwriting. But I'm perhaps even more intrigued by I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems From the Pentagon's Black World, in which Trevor Paglen investigates the secret stories behind obscure military patches.
Melville also has a lovely bookstore in DUMBO, Brooklyn. You can find a link to it here.