The Archive Moles.

Back in 2016 I posted about Lucy Scholes’ list of “hidden literary gems”; now she has a Prospect essay describing what it takes to get forgotten books back into print:

Four years ago, I began writing “Re-Covered”, a monthly column for the Paris Review website about books that are out of print or forgotten but that shouldn’t be. And two years ago I started work as an editor at McNally Editions, the publishing imprint of the New York City-based independent bookstore chain McNally Jackson. We launched early last year and like to describe the books that we publish as hidden gems; titles that are not widely known but have stood the test of time, remaining as singular and engaging as when they were first written. […]

Most of the time, my work feels more like that of a detective than an editor. Falling down endless online rabbit holes is an occupational hazard. I read old reviews in digitised newspaper archives, and trawl obituaries, looking for interesting titbits. Internet Archive—the non-profit digital library that houses millions of books—is an indispensable resource, not least because so many of the titles it holds can’t be easily found IRL. But none of this would work without access to various bricks-and-mortar collections, especially the London Library. You’ll find me in the stacks, rootling out books that—as revealed by the stampings inside—no one’s read since the 1980s, or earlier.

Faber’s classics and heritage editor Ella Griffiths’s playful description of herself as an “archive mole” feels spot on. Our endeavours might be dusty, but it’s easy to become addicted to the thrill of the chase, which is made all the more exciting because serendipity plays such a pivotal role. Griffiths was browsing the shelves of Faber’s in-house archive when her eye was caught by the striking post-apocalyptic cover of their original English-language edition of Termush, Danish author and playwright Sven Holm’s 1969 dystopian novella. She’s now reissuing the book under the new Faber Editions series—which spotlights radical rediscovered voices from history—this May. […]

Brad Bigelow, the curator of the longstanding Neglected Books website and recently appointed editor of Boiler House Press’s new Recovered Books series, is another whose hunting is led heavily by kismet. “Often, I get interested in a book because I’m looking into another one,” he tells me. “The old practice of the TLS and other papers of reviewing three to six novels in one piece is a boon for this kind of exploration.” Though he’s quick to point out that these write-ups don’t necessarily have to be glowing: he first became interested in the British poet and novelist Rosemary Tonks, for example, when he came across an old review that described her as having “A decorative style but it’s all parsley”.

Similarly, roughly three years ago, I stumbled upon a character assassination of an obituary for the English writer and editor Kay Dick, describing her as “a talented woman bedevilled by ingratitude and a kind of manic desire to avenge totally imaginary wrongs,” who “expended far more energy in pursuing personal vendettas and romantic lesbian friendships than in writing books”. I promptly hared off to the London Library and found Dick’s extraordinary 1977 novel They: A Sequence of Unease. From the opening page, I knew I had something special in my hands. Set in a dystopian version of then contemporary Britain, bands of violent reactionaries roam the country, punishing intellectual and cultural outliers who refuse to obey this terrifying mob rule. I wrote about it in my column that summer; when I joined McNally Editions only a few months later, it was the first book I acquired. […]

There are myriad reasons why some books fall out of print while others remain in the spotlight. Genius, it rather depressingly turns out, is no guarantee of longevity, nor is one-time notoriety. Just take some of the books McNally Editions is reissuing this year. There’s Alston Anderson’s Lover Man, an old copy of which one of my colleagues plucked off the shelves of the New York Society Library, enticed by the rarity of the author’s first name. He discovered a striking collection of stories exploring the hidden lives of black men and boys in the Jim Crow South, written by a cosmopolitan black American author whose friendship with Robert Graves helped bring about the volume’s original publication—here in the UK—back in 1958. Another colleague was at a library sale in upstate New York and picked up Ursula Parrott’s Ex-Wife, her paean to the life of the single woman in Jazz Age Manhattan—or as she put it, “the era of the one-night-stand”. This is a novel that feels so strikingly modern that, when I first read it, I assumed it was a well-researched period piece. But no, Parrott published it—initially anonymously, for fear of scandal—in 1929.

Lots more at the link, including a reading list of reissues that includes some enticing-sounding books, like Barbara Greene’s Too Late to Turn Back (I can just hear our fiend Mike “thegrowlingwolf” Greene growling “All Greenes are kin”):

Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps (1936) is an account of his 350-mile trek, the previous year, through Liberia’s then unmapped interior. Although barely mentioned in Greene’s book, accompanying him was his 23-year-old cousin, Barbara, who’d agreed to the expedition after one too many glasses of champagne at a family wedding. First published in 1938, this is her—very different—account of their journey.

As for the wonderfully named Rosemary Tonks, we discussed her in 2014.


  1. Attention! A linguistics joke has appeared on SMBC, home of cartoons dedicated to science and math (mostly)! This joke has to do with Jakubinskij’s Law (see Wikipedia). Here is the text of the cartoon:


    For the cartoon itself, please see the SMBC website for 4 Feb., 2023:

    It’s hilarious, if you’re interested in South Slavic languages. 🤓 Haha! I’m joking — it’s actually pretty funny, at least to language nerds like myself!

    (For those of you not familiar with SMBC, it’s the product of Zach Weinersmith’s somewhat odd sense of humor. Thank you, Zach!)

  2. Thanks @Dave. Whereas Maths prefers to name all laws for Euler. I’m not seeing that’s an improvement.

    SMBC comics get posted to Language Log by Mark Liberman from time to time. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one turns up.

  3. John Cowan says

    Law in science means ‘discovered regularity in natural phenomena’; it’s not about the size or number of the phenomena. In short, vot’s funny?.

  4. David Marjanović says

    SMBC comics get posted to Language Log by Mark Liberman from time to time. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one turns up.

    There you go.

  5. vot’s funny?
    Jakubinskij’s croaticised first name is Lav. I wouldn’t put it past Weinersmith that that’s a reason to choose him for the joke.
    As for the original post, that looks like a fun job. Does she say anything on the muck-to-brass ratio? I assume that the moles must encounter their share of bad or so-so books in their endeavour.

  6. Me: Does she say anything on the muck-to-brass ratio?
    I somehow read right past Hat mentioning that this was an article from Prospect, to the paper edition of which I actually subscribe, so I was almost startled when I discovered this article in the print edition this weekend.
    Anyway, she does talk about something related:
    But there’s rarely an opportunity to shape the main text – and, believe me, this can be frustrating. My colleagues and I have had many conversations about a book we’d be dying to publish, if only we could change the ending, cut a rambling middle section, or work on a character’s development.
    …. behind every book we do publish, there’s 10 or even 20 others that we’ve decided aren’t quite right.

    So that’s the ratio for those that didn’t make the cut after being considered; the number of duds dismissed after a first reading must be even bigger.

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