November 29, 2015 | Pashto

Went North, Found World Literature

In which changing my coffee shop routine led me to global writers.

I am trying to shake up my routine a bit, so I have been testing out a new coffee shop. I realize this is not the most radical alteration one could make to one’s lifestyle, but much of life is in the details.

Michael Z. Wise and Ross Ufberg of New Vessel Press

Michael Z. Wise and Ross Ufberg of New Vessel Press

Instead of heading south on my usual coffee quest, I have begun heading north. Today, on only my third such northerly caffeine excursion, I stumbled across a tableful of astonishing new literature, right there on 75th Street and Broadway!

A nice journalist named Michael Wise was manning the table. He is a co-founder (though he doesn’t hyphenate that word on his business cards, I noticed, which I kind of liked) of New Vessel Press, and this was his table along with his other co-founder, Ross Ufberg, who was temporarily in absentia but was back by the time I passed by a second time after an hour of Pashto studies at my new northerly coffee shop.

Michael gave me a thematic and linguistic survey of the beautifully designed books on the table, periodically interrupted by enthusiastic repeat visitors who were actually reading what he was selling.

All except one of the books on the table were translations from other languages into English. There was a book translated from Hebrew. Another from German. One from French. One from Italian. One from Spanish. One from Polish. 

This One Portrays a Lost Polyglot World!

This One Portrays a Lost Polyglot World!

Alexandrian Summer, by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, was translated from Hebrew by Yardenne Greesnspan. According to the back cover, this book “portrays a now vanished polyglot world of horse racing, seaside promenades and elegant nightclubs”!

I am kind of obsessed with how little foreign writing Americans read, so this development right here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where New Vessel is based, was a very cheering start to my day.

As Michael and I were chatting, one customer came up who had bought from this Broadway book oasis before. He reminded Michael which title he had purchased last time.

“Did you read it?” Michael asked.

“Of course I read it,” replied the customer in gruff New York style. Duh, was the vibe! What idiot would buy a book and not read it? A lot of people, I thought to myself. The customer started extolling the book’s virtues to me. 

I Like This Title: I Called Him Necktie

I Like This Title: I Called Him Necktie

Beautiful Artwork!

Beautiful Artwork!

Another woman came up who had visited them at this street corner the week before. She wanted to be added to the mailing list.

I myself bought three books for $30. To me these books are perfect holiday gifts. Delicious design, words and ideas from wonderful writers around the world, so much more exciting than flowers (which are nice too, I like flowers, please don’t misunderstand me).

It’s just that the percentage of books published in the U.S. that are translations from other languages is minuscule. That incredibly lopsided pro-English bias is limiting intellectually and aesthetically, so bringing translations to the reading American public is important work.

I may have studied a bit of Hebrew, but I sure as heck am nowhere close to being able to read a novel in it!

I need someone else to do that work for me — or for now that work is simply lost to me.

Comments (1)

Stanzzii • Posted on Sat, December 26, 2015 - 9:37 pm EST

Alexandrian Summer seems right up my alley! I would love to run across something similar. It bugs me to no end that people in other countries read books in translation constantly mixed in with their native language reading, but English speakers hardly ever do. Unfortunately, I’m also pretty guilty of never seeking out translated books—I get side-tracked by the languages instead!

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