Being a book publicist—which is what I do in my daily life—is a pretty great way to make a living. Especially if you work, as I do, at a university press: you get to work with smart people to get the word out about smart books. And what could be better than talking to people about books all day?
Well, how about getting to do that for your favorite book of all time? That’s where I’ve found myself this past fortnight: as the publicity manager of the University of Chicago Press (a role, I should say, that’s completely separate from any work I do for the Quarterly Conversation), I’m currently promoting new e-book editions of the twelve individual novels that make up Anthony Powell’s epic A Dance to the Music of Time.
I’ve been a fan of Dance since back in my bookselling days, and I’m perpetually rereading it. I’m currently well into my fifth time through the entire series. There’s nothing else quite like Dance; Jonathan Ames, in his novel Wake Up, Sir!, has a character describe them like this:
“Jeeves and I were reading together, as a sort of two-person book club, Anthony Powell’s epic, twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s absolutely a stupendous work—almost nothing of moment occurs for hundreds of page, thousands, even, and yet one reads on completely mesmerized. It’s like an imprint of life: nothing happens and yet everything happens.”
He’s right: Powell very quietly sweeps you up in the lives of his characters, and by the end of the book you feel that you know them—and interwar English society and culture—as intimately as you know your friends. As a parlor trick, I could easily name seventy-five or more characters from the series and tell you something significant about each; there are probably twenty that I could describe well enough that you’d swear I knew them in real life. Add to that Powell’s sly, dry sense of humor and satire, his deep appreciation of human oddity, and his corresponding deep empathy, and you’ve got a set of books that you can carry with you through a lifetime.
The University of Chicago Press has been the proud US home of Dance for fifteen years, selling it in four nicely designed, brick-like omnibus editions of three novels apiece. But as someone who has proselytized for Dance for years—check out the tens of thousands of words I’ve written about it at my own blog—I know that the biggest obstacle to attracting new readers is its sheer bulk. A lot of people are too daunted by the total page count to try picking it up. That’s why I’m so excited about the new e-book—and, in particular, about the promotion Chicago is using to launch them: for the month of December, the first novel in the series, A Question of Upbringing will be available as an e-book for free. There’s more information at the University of Chicago Press’s site; you can get the book directly from them or from most e-book retailers, including such outlets as Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Download it and settle in on a quiet evening with a cup of tea and, as Powell himself would have done, a cat on your lap. I can’t promise that you’ll love Dance—no book is for everyone—but I can promise you it’s worth the try.