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The Book-of-the-Month Club



One of Christopher Morley’s enduring contributions to the literary world of today is his early involvement in the Book-of-the-Month Club (BOTMC). Conceived by Harry Scherman, the Club was launched in 1926 as a mail-order service for books curated by a panel of judges whose connection lent credibility to the enterprise.


As described by Helen Oakley in her biography of Morley, Three Hours for Lunch, Scherman “bagged without much difficulty Christopher Morley whose success as an author was at a high point”. Though it would be years before he wrote his most commercially-successful work, Kitty Foyle, Morley’s “Bowling Green” column in The Saturday Review of Literature magazine was considered a significant draw for readership. The other members of the original judges’ panel included literary critic Henry Seidel Canby, who was one of the founders and editors of the Saturday Review, writer and Progressive Movement leader William Allen White, journalist and Newspaper Guild founder Heywood Broun, and best-selling author/social activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher.


The judges followed a “rigid policy of no criteria” and no mission towards influencing readers in any way except for “the honest desire to put excellent reading matter into the hands of their trusting subscribers.” Their meetings began “promptly at 11:45” at first in Scherman’s West 43rd Street office and later “in the sumptuous quarters the Club maintained” at Hudson Street. Their sessions “seldom ended before four o’ clock or later” and final selections were made not by vote but “The traditional Quaker principle of concurrence.”


A vehicle for uplifting the works of talented but overlooked writers, The Book-of-the-Month Club, (specifically through Morley and Fisher’s championing), is considered responsible for the discovery of new talents like Pearl S. Buck through the selection of her now-classic novel The Good Earth. Other authors who gained significant exposure through their debut works being selected include Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell, and Nelson Demille.


Morley found more opportunities to champion works not selected by the club through the Book-of-the-Month Club News, for which he composed the lead review along with other short reviews and blurbs that amounted to 63 appearances from 1927 to 1948. In the spirit of Morley’s contributions to the BOTMC News, we asked several members of The Bryant Library’s reference staff to read and review past selections with the option of reviewing one of Morley's own works. The request was eagerly fulfilled by several members of our reference staff.


You can read these reviews below, and are invited to seek out the reviewed titles from our circulating collection.

 

Where the Blue Begins by Christopher Morley

Review by Carol Clarke, Archivist


“There’s no place like home.” So says Dorothy after her dream trip “over the rainbow” to the Land of Oz. Mr. Gissing, the protagonist of Morley’s quirky 1922 novel, has a similar response following his Adventures in search of that nebulous place of supposed freedom, “where the blue begins.”


When responsibilities pull him away from the days when “he would have lain down on his back, with all four legs upward, and cheerily shrugged and rolled to and fro, as the crisp ground-stubble was very pleasing to the spine,” the anthropomorphic puppy leaves his domestic existence in Canine Estates and “the clear familiar colours of the world he knew,” setting off in search of an ever-shifting horizon. Over the course of a series of (mis)adventures, Gissing meets a range of characters and is exposed to the vagaries of life and truths of human nature.


Where the Blue Begins is as timely a reflection on the meaning of life today as when it was written almost a century ago. Morley’s pointed observations on human nature are, in many instances, spot on. Morley’s dry humor and vivid description made the book an entertaining read. Just be sure to have your phone (or a dictionary) handy, as Morley’s notorious skill as a wordsmith will test the vocabulary of most 21st century readers.

 

Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Review by Wendy Roque, Reference Librarian


Night Flight is a short novel first published as Vol de Nuit in 1931. The novel is loosely based on the author’s real life experience of flying planes for the Argentinian postal service. It centers around Riviere, an airmail pilot as well as some of his fellow pilot buddies at the beginning of commercial aviation.


The novel's details of the travels from Buenos Aires and all across the Patagonian landscape under the cover of night is truly breathtaking. The novel details the ups and downs (pun intended) of the life of a pilot especially during a storm. The dialogue between the pilots and ground control, as well as the descriptions of the vast mountainous landscapes makes you feel as if you are there in the cockpit witnessing the dawn of commercial aviation. The climax of the novel is a suspenseful and riveting journey that you’ll need to read for yourself.


A quick, edge-of-your-seat read, the novel is a poetic ode to the early pilots who put themselves in danger for the love of flying, but more importantly for their sense of duty and brotherhood. The book had me waiting with baited breath for the conclusion and I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

 

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Review by Ariel Alyce Morabito, Archives Assistant


The eponymous Brideshead of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, (often accompanied by its subtitle: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder) is the type of grand English countryside estate that brings to mind Victorian novels set in “great houses”. While much of the novel’s criticism focuses on its relationship to Catholicism, I found more interest in the described eccentricities of Lord Sebastian Flyte. While his mannerisms are markedly aristocratic, his identity as a careless man-child is boldly flaunted through the ubiquity of his teddy bear, Aloysius. Were we discussing an actual child, the bear’s presence would be of little interest. However, Lord Sebastian is a student at Oxford alongside our narrator, Charles Ryder who is recalling his college years in the early 1920s. While the book drags a bit in the epilogue, the charmingly British dialogue soon floods its pages as we encounter various episodes of both humor and despair.

Modern readers will have no trouble recognizing the romantic attributes of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship, and perhaps wonder how this novel could have been authored by a devout Catholic. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the highly ornamental language which borders on poetic in scenes that feature Sebastian’s aristocratic decadence:

“Under a clump of elms we ate strawberries and drank the wine…and we lit fat Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Sebastian’s eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of foliage, and the sweet smell of tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger’s breadth above the turf and hold us suspended…That day was the beginning of my friendship with Sebastian, and thus it came about, that morning in June, that I was lying beside him in the shade of the high elms watching the smoke from his lips drift up into the branches.”

Though Sebastian eventually loses the whimsical flamboyance of the novel’s early chapters to alcoholism, he remains an interesting character throughout as we witness the descent of his and Charles’ friendship. An exploration of loss, nostalgia, and autobiographical reflection, Brideshead Revisited is a classic British novel with much to offer readers that appreciate slow burning descriptions of life for the young and privileged.

 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Review by Julie Klein, Head of Reference


For this year, Long Island Reads chose to promote and discuss The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Interestingly enough, the BOTM Club’s Book of the Year in 2020 was The Vanishing Half, a novel about identical twin sisters who grew up in a small southern town, but ultimately chose to live very different lives as adults: one black and the other white. One sister secretly passes for white, while the other sister returns to her hometown with her black daughter. At the heart of this story are the choices each sister has made and how these decisions affect family, community and racial identity.

 

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

Review by Tammy Manor, Reference Librarian


Anna Fox used to be a successful child psychologist, living in an upscale neighborhood with her husband and her daughter. Now she lives alone, and suffers from agoraphobia. The reader isn’t initially given a lot of background information about Anna’s separation from her husband or her illness.


Anna spends her days drinking wine, watching movies, reminiscing about the past, and spying on her neighbors. One night she witnesses her new neighbor getting murdered by her husband. The police question Anna’s reliability because she is on medication, and she has empty bottles of wine strewn about her house. Was she hallucinating or did she really witness a brutal murder?


The author’s style is full of suspense and unexpected twists. The reader will at times sympathize with Anna, and at other times wonder if she can be trusted. People who enjoy books with plot twists, and shocking endings will enjoy The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn.

 

Did you enjoy these staff reviews? Drop us a line through our contact form or email us at localhistory@bryantlibrary.org with any comments or compliments you may have for our reference department colleagues.


Interested in any of these titles? Visit our library catalog to reserve a copy or contact the reference desk at 516-621-2240, ext. 240.

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