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Dave Wood's Book Report, Jan. 30, 2008

"Mid-List" is a word that doesn't get much play any more in the book world. In the old days most publishers had a "mid-list" section of books for sale.

These were good books, but books that didn't promise to make a lot of money right away. They weren't at the bottom of the heap, but not at the top, either, at least in terms of sales.

This all changed a quarter century ago when Congress -- in its wisdom --decided to tax publishers' inventories, just as it taxes the nuts and bolts and nails in storage at hardware manufacturing companies.

That meant that publishers operating for profit had to dump their inventories of slow-selling books rather than waiting around for someone to order obscure, but excellent, novels and non-fiction.

Not too bright, Congress, to take aim at an ailing industry and punch it in the guts. (Better to give subsidies to wealthy farmers.)

But there was an exception to the trend of dumping.

Marianne Nora and Lane Stiles opened up a new publishing company in their home in south Minneapolis.

It was non-profit, so they didn't have to dump their inventory. And do you know what they called it?

They jumped in on all fours and called it "Mid-List Press."

They've survived for almost a decade, publishing quality books, reprinting classics like Dr. William Nolen's "The Making of a Surgeon" and sponsoring fiction and non-fiction contests that have yielded several wonderful books.

And now, wonder of wonders, they've got a hot item on their hands.

It's called "The Writer's Brush" (Mid-List, $40) and it's getting rave reviews from publications like The New York Times, the Financial Times, The London Times.

On Dec. 15, CBS Sunday Morning TV ran a 10-minute segment on the book.

So why all the fuss? Because it's a very startling book, so good that it has already sold out its first printing of 10,000 copies -- very good for a coffee table book.

But this is no ordinary coffee table book with pictures of souffles and Hawaiian sunsets.

This is a book years in the making by a New York Lawyer named Donald Friedman. He's been collecting information about writers who also draw and paint and sculpt.

A few years ago he won Mid-List's fiction prize and told Nora about his research, saying that New York publishers probably weren't interested because it was too "Mid-List."

So Nora said "Let's do it." And they did. It's a 450 page, 6 pound book featuring 200 authors who doubled as artists.

Four hundred of their works are printed in the book in full color on quality paper.

Some of the authors are obvious, like Max Beerbohm and Evelyn Waugh who habitually illustrated their writings.

But some come as a surprise, even startle the reader.

Like elegant art deco drawings by William Faulkner, who drew them for the Ole Miss magazine when he was young. Or Sherwood Anderson. Or even Charles Bukoski (he's not very good).

All illustrations are accompanied by a well-researched essay, authored by Friedman.

And notice the price: $40. Why not $75?

"Because our goal is to publish books accessible to everyone. This book," said Nora, "costs little more than a hardcover novel."

My hat is off to Nora and Stiles for hanging in there for the good of literature and its readers.

One of the first critics I ever read in graduate school was Alfred Kazin.

His landmark book, "On Native Grounds," was required reading in most American lit classes. I always wondered about its author.

And now I need wonder no more. "Alfred Kazin: A Biography," by Richard M. Cook (Yale University Press, no price) tells me what I need to know.

Kazin was a poor boy from Brooklyn, born into a barely literate family and he became "The Boy Wonder of American Criticism" with the publication of "On Native Grounds" in 1942.

Cook tells Kazin's story using his letters, his journals, conversations with Kazin and his colleagues before Kazin's death in 1998. It's a wonderful book.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.