To say that I do a fair number of book reviews is probably something of an understatement. The main reason for this is that I love reading; no matter how many books I've read I just can't get jaded. There's always something new and exciting if you know where to look.
Of course I've my preferences in genre and style — who doesn't? — but on occasion I like to challenge myself in order to keep intellectually sharp. The brain is like any other muscle, I figure – if you don't exercise it, it will grow flabby. I have to admit that I will always prefer a well-written story over anything else, though, no matter if it's an intellectual challenge or not.
Which explains why J.K. Rowling is equally comfortable on my bookshelves as Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce. But if there is anything or anyone I have a soft spot for when it comes to books it's the smaller independent presses. I suppose you could put it down to a type of romanticism, an affinity for the small press that puts out books because they love it, rather than being in pursuit of the next bestseller of the moment like bigger presses are forced to be.
Of course that's not the truth in either situation, but larger imprints do have much more put on the line than the small ones and have to worry more about the bottom line. The small press with only a limited run of far fewer titles can afford to take a few more risks with the style and content of its releases. Whether it is true or not, in my mind's eye I will always associate small presses with work that is more concerned with artistic merits than commercial viability.
I know that is an awful generalization and that there are probably numerous instances of just the opposite, but how often do you find the work of a contemporary Cuban photographer in one of those luxurious coffee table books the large houses produce periodically? How many would risk publishing translations of detective novels by a former officer in the Algerian army?
Trance, published by Perceval Press, and the early works of Yasmina Khadra, published by Toby Press, are respectively the two small presses referred to in the paragraph above. Over the past few months I've come to appreciate both of them for the wonderful content they have to offer.
Perceval Press was founded by Viggo Mortensen and is primarily concerned with publishing books of artistic expression that would probably have very little chance of seeing the light of day otherwise. A good percentage of the work is Mr. Mortensen's wonderfully cerebral and emotional poetry and photographs. But this is much more than just the vanity press of a wealthy individual, as they also publish selected works by a variety of other artists.
The majority of their focus is on art for art's sake, but they do publish other work as well. There are the highly strange and brilliant musical collaborations of Mr. Mortensen and the mysterious Buckethead (so named for the empty Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket he wears on his head while performing, and his penchant for appearing masked at all times) available on CD. There are also a good variety of other photographs and visual arts on sale as well.
In a lot of ways Perceval Press epitomises the nature of the small press in that they publish a very specific type of book. The books they produce are not going to appeal to a mass audience, but they weren't designed to. The books they offer challenge us to see the world in different ways and not all of them are comfortable or pleasant. But then again, there is a lot about our world that is not comfortable or pleasant.
Toby Press is a lot more like your traditional publisher in that they offer a variety of fiction and non-fiction work. Where they differ from their more mainstream contemporaries is the nature of their content. Aside from the aforementioned Khadre, they lean heavily towards authors from the Middle East.
Probably Toby Press is one of the few places in the world where Jew and Arab are equally at home as they rub shoulders quite happily together in their catalogue. Whether it's an Iranian describing the days just before the overthrow of the Shah or an elderly Orthodox Jew who is devoted to his faith and his life in the city of Jerusalem, the gulf that exists between them in our world is bridged in Toby's catalogue.
It is truly an international publisher as stories travel from eastern Africa to the Georgia Steppes, to the Golan Heights, and the streets of Damascus and Algiers. Although on some pages the characters speak the polemic of the times, the authors are not endorsing those sentiments, just ensuring that we know the reality in which they exist.
Like Perceval Press, Toby Press brings us the voices we don't normally get to hear. While now it seems like almost every publisher has at least one Muslim writer in their stable, to go with their Hindu, the only distinction that seems to have mattered at Toby has been the quality of the writing.
Over the next few days I'll be reviewing some more items from the Perceval Press catalogue, including more work by Mr. Mortensen, some from the forbidden island of Cuba (forbidden at least if you live in the U.S.), and, surprisingly, a couple of books for young adults. Until June 17, you can buy pretty much any title from their catalogue for half price – including all CDs, books of poetry, and visual art books as long as you purchase directly form the site.
There are numerous other small presses out there who do much the same thing that either one of these two do and you'd be doing yourself a favour if you checked them out. Who knows – you might discover a gem of your own.