Editor's Note: For more than 50 years, Jim Bready has been a fixture on these pages, writing and opining with great wit, wonder and wisdom about books of particular interest to Marylanders. Today marks his final regular column.
A big year, 1954. Nationally, desegregated public education; locally, the Orioles' return to the major leagues. Also, the founding of a book lovers group called the Baltimore Bibliophiles, and of a Sunday Sun column called Books & Authors. All remain alive and, despite here a grumble and there a losing percentage, well.
The idea of having a local-figure-or-topic book column - something new - was Harold A. Williams Jr.'s, as editor. Offered this choicest of assignments, I grabbed it and ran; who'd have expected to become out of breath this soon?
The first 30 years, the pattern for Books & Authors was interviewing: Had you written a book, or published, or edited, or charged out, or collected, or marketed a book, even if your phone hadn't rung yet, I was on your trail. But in 1984, another authority arrived, with other ideas: book-community news notes. Then, in 1995, one more command decision: new name, Books of the Region, and mission - to review new book after new book.
Early, Clarence Russell offered a caution: "Baltimore's not a very good book town." Too many entertainment alternatives, especially outdoors. Well, Russell ran the two Remington bookstores downtown, competing with three department stores' new books and at least four used-book operations; and Enoch Pratt central library was everyone's friend. If you had a job downtown, and fast feet, you could have wonderful lunch hours. But Russell sensed a trend, and look today - in downtown, public-access books, Pratt (bless it) stands almost alone.
Glancing about, not since 1989 (Anne Tyler, novel; Taylor Branch, history) has a Marylander (excluding Washington's suburbanites) won a Pulitzer book prize. True, in 2000 Lucille Clifton won a National Book Award for her poetry. Success, of course, is measured more than one way. How many blockbusters (i.e., best-sellers, with royalties galore) have we generated? Last time I looked, three of the 15 titles listed as New York Times best-sellers were bang-bangers by Nora Roberts of Keedysville. Both Stephen Hunter and Laura Lippman have intercontinental followings. But achievement has grown harder than ever to judge, now that technology routes the printed word along so many avenues.
At least money is no bar to reading. At today's Book Thing, in Waverly, whatever has pages and a cover is free.
Along the way, I have read, met, written about a Gutenberg's glut of book people. So I started here to single out aiders and abettors for public thank you. As the name list - William F. Albright through Larzer Ziff - passed 100, unease set in. Space, for such a parade? Present-day-reader unfamiliarity? Delete name list.
Mostly, these were authors. In such a column, predisposition toward them is perhaps inevitable; rarely (but it happened) was the subject a local reader of books, many books. At one point, I plunged headlong into the book business. I wrote, published and (with help from Mary, Richard, Chris and Steve Bready) sold, from our basement, all 5,000 copies of an illustrated, oversize history of the Orioles: The Home Team: A Patriotic Story, Told With Emotion, Arithmetic, Glass Plates and Band Music. Between 1958 and 1984, The Home Team went through four editions and, updated, reached 124 pages. Today, at auctions, a first edition (original price, $4.50) fetches $75. Forty years later, a second such history followed, rewritten and with different art, Baseball in Baltimore (Johns Hopkins University Press), gaining much from the startup meanwhile of the Society for American Baseball Research.
Paying for the printing and publishing of your own book used to be scorned ("vanity press"); nowadays, what with electronic, single-copy-order publishing, and widespread memoirs, poems, self-helps, cookbooks and children's books, the difficulty with author-publishers is their multiplicity. Bear in mind that at most newspapers, trade-book advertising is meager, self-publisher ads are nil and book-review space ain't great. This newspaper has been reviewing perhaps 50 local, general-reader books a year -fewer than half of those published. Starting that first December (1954), I set out brashly to catalog every year's full output. Eventually, The Sun's database was logging every such author, title and one-line comment. Librarians applauded. Last December, for lack of space, the custom ceased.
Stories, along this clovery way? You bet. One high point was, indeed, aloft, in the Belvedere Hotel: the 1980 centennial of H.L. Mencken's birth, organized by Pratt library. At the head table, as speaker, was Alfred A. Knopf himself, Mencken's publisher (whom I had interviewed beforehand, in his New York office). At an ordinary table, thanks to Kate Coplan, I sat between William Manchester and Russell Baker. Euphoria.