Oxygen Books: A world of reading
You might be familiar with Oxygen Books from theirCity-Pick series, the anthologies of writing about the world's great cities that turn the concept of the city guide-book on its head.
You might also be familiar with co-founder Heather Reyes' An Everywhere: A Little Book about Reading, the guide-book to the city of books itself which recently drew a rave review from the Guardian.
As a glance at their website will tell you, however, Oxygen is more than a publishing house. Heather and her husband Malcolm Burgess, both of whom are not only publishers but writers as well - and, of course, avid bookworms - have spent years building it into a community of book-lovers, where anyone who has been bitten by the reading bug can find like-minded people and share stories and tips. They also know that those encounters don't just need to happen on the internet - readers need to meet and mingle. For the past year, they've been running day-long events at libraries, where readers can meet authors, publishers and translators, and find out what's new in the book world. In March, I went along to their Around the World in Eighty Books event in Birmingham for a day of exotic literary delights, tall tales, deep insights, and surprisingly beautiful home-made quilts.
Amongst breakout sessions on the literatures of different countries, writing workshops and sessions on translating, the event pulled in some serious star names from the book world. The day's first speaker was Tracey Chevalier, the wildly popular historical novelist whose Girl with a Pearl Earring remains one of the biggest blockbusters of the last decade, and was made into a successful film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. Chevalier's new book The Last Runaway is about a young Quaker woman named Honor Bright, who emigrates to America in the mid-nineteenth century and becomes involved in the Underground Railroad, smuggling escaped slaves to freedom in the Northern States and Canada. It's a novel, she told us, about "ordinary people making history … but as well as being about slavery, it's about emigration, the state of being an outsider. It's the story of this woman becoming American, and adapting to a society that's very different to the one she's from".
One thing that Honor Bright does, in her Ohio Quaker community, is participate in communal quilt-making: 'I always have to have my characters do something with their hands', said Chevalier, 'because that's what our ancestors did'. And this is a part of her research that Chevalier threw herself into with a will, starting a quilting circle, producing her own specimens and curating an exhibition on quilts. She spread one out on stage for us to look at, a soberly gorgeous affair in cream and brown, to a rapturous chorus of coos from the audience.
Beatrice Colin is one of Scotland's most exciting young novelists, and one of those rare beasts who attracts both critical admiration and the endorsement of Richard and Judy's Book Club. Oxygen pulled her in to speak at Around the World in Eighty Books about her new novel The Luminous Life of Lily Aphrodite, a historical blockbuster based loosely on the life of her own great-aunt, a Russian emigre who worked in the film industry in interwar Berlin. It's a rich, beautifully textured tale of love and exile in which the turbulent history of Weimar Germany is almost as much a character as the titular heroine. The passage Colin read us, about how people lived and loved through the miserable postwar winter of 1919, was so pungent with evocation that we were momentarily transported out of Birmingham City Library in into a world of poverty, sadness, love, despair, snatched pleasures and the improbable hopefulnessof youth.
The day's last event, and perhaps the most fascinating, was a talk from Ann Morgan, the writer of the excellentReading the World blog. Morgan set herself a task: to read, over the course of a year, one book from each of the world's countries. Not entirely surprisingly, what started as an idle bet against her own hunger for literature quickly turned into a heroic undertaking. Indeed, her troubles began before she even started reading: how was she to decide how many countries there were? Should Taiwan be counted separately from China? Should she count Abkhazia, Western Sahara, Transdnistria? Should China and Taiwan be counted separately? What about the plethora of unilaterally-declared indpenedent states in outback Australia, the pet projectsof disgruntled or eccentric landowners? In the end, she plumped for the UN's list of recognised sovereign states (which, while not uncontroversial, certainly dealt with the Australian separatists). The next challenge was finding things to read from every country: in the case of Sao Tome and Principe, the tiny island nation off the West coast of Africa, she ended up enlisting the help of volunteers to translate a novel from the Portuguese. And when civil war broke out in South Sudan - a country that only came into existence midway through eth project - Morgan found herself deperately trying to contact the South Sudanese writers and translators with whom she'd made friends. Reading the World: Postcards from My Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker in 2015.
As for what's next for Oxygen Books, well, you'll have to keep an eye on their website. Heather recently publishedMiranda Road, a wry and wise saga of life in North London and Paris through the seventies and eighties; and this autumn, Oxygen will be releasing Bookworms, Dog-Ears and Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover's Alphabet - a light-hearted follow-up to An Everywhere. If anything, these dedicated bibliophiles might be almost too productive for their own good. Watch this space.
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