Indie Spotlight: New Directions

Article by mark

by Mark Haber

 

New Directions was founded in 1932 by James Laughlin, due, in large part, to the insistence of Laughlin’s friend, Ezra Pound. To my mind, it is the quintessential American independent publisher. From the start, the focus was on brave and original works of literature--and it still is. Its aesthetic, from book design to choice of author and title, is peerless. During the Second World War, Alvin Lustig designed many of New Directions’ book jackets, using a modernist abstract style that became, for many years, the publisher’s hallmark. Though its designs have changed, its list of releases is still as varied and bold as the 20th century books it published.

 

Who was Vladimir Nabokov’s first American publisher? New Directions. Who first published SIDDHARTHA in America? New Directions. The list--which includes Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Nathanael West, and Javier Marías--goes on and on.

The influence New Directions has had on me as a reader cannot be put into words. Through New Directions, I discovered Louis Ferdinand Céline, the horribly vulgar genius who mixed the argot of the Parisian slums with the poetry of madness and created something altogether new. One doesn’t read Céline as much as experience Céline. His first two novels, JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT and DEATH ON THE INSTALLMENT PLAN, made me realize the importance of literature in translation, something that has become a lifelong passion. 

In 2008, I discovered the author that, for me, would soon become larger-than-life: Roberto Bolaño. Who was America’s first publisher of Bolaño? You guessed it. Bolaño’s first work to appear in America, BY NIGHT IN CHILE, is a perfect example of Bolaño’s unparalleled style, command of language, and powerful imagination. In recent years, New Directions has been a wellspring of Spanish and Latin American writers, from Enrique Vila-Matas to Cesar Aira, from Clarice Lispector to Horacio Castellanos Moya. These writers bring an amazing diversity of voices and styles, as well as a sense of place, to the literary canon. 

Today, I can peruse any bookstore and spot New Directions’ familiar colophon on the spine immediately. That emblem is a sign of quality, of a book that has been thoughtfully read and curated, and which speaks to the tradition behind this singular and iconic publisher.

 

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