In September 1986, four well-known publishing professionals in the UK came together to create an independent publishing company which would be dedicated to editorial excellence and originality as well as high standards of production and Design. Five days after announcing his arrival, Bloomsbury was at the Frankfurt Book Fair, even though he didn’t have a single book to present. “The industry came to visit the Frankfurt stand, fascinated that the five-day publisher had only quarter bottles of Bollinger to offer, but no books yet,” writes Nigel Newton, one of the founders, in the preface to Bloomsbury 35which commemorates the incredible journey of the publishing house in the world of letters.
By early 1987, Bloomsbury had its lists well advanced and was beginning to publish authors such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Nadine Gordimer, John Irving, Joanna Trollope, etc. Many of them will win the greatest literary prizes, including the Booker, the Pulitzer and the Nobel. This book zooms in on some of the finest and most important works Bloomsbury has published over the past 35 years and presents a captivating collection of excerpts from them.
Of course, editors bemoan the fact that it only gives readers a taste of the adult fiction that Bloomsbury has published, and that space constraints have forced them to omit glimpses of other genres such as non-fiction and poetry or even one of his most prodigious hits, magic Harry Potter books by JK Rowling.
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Bloomsbury 35 contains all the usual suspects – there are excerpts from the works of literary heavyweights like Abdulrazak Gurnah (winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature) and George Saunders, William Boyd and others, and best-selling authors such as Khaled Hosseini and Elizabeth Gilbert (she from Eat Pray Love celebrity). And you get that nice sense of familiarity when, say, you engage again with Atwood’s masterful Booker-winning novel-within-a-novel, blind assassin, or briefly warm yourself in the fire of the protagonist’s passion for his mistress in Ondaatje’s The English Patient (also a Booker Prize winner), or when you bite once more into a slice of late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s racy, disruptive and utterly thunderous confessional, Confidential kitchen.
But the book does not just serve carefully selected literary books amuse bouche. Its real delight lies in the thrilling sense of discovery it offers. You may have read all or most of the books whose excerpts have been grouped between its covers. But for the rest, it provides compelling snapshots of works one may not have encountered, or even had time to read. There are some scintillating prose samples here and some intriguing story promises. And they are certain to whet your appetite and lead you to the books themselves.
Edited by Liz Calder and Alexandra Pringle
A box of knives is one. In the space of a few pages, the piece from this 1988 novel by Candia Williams manages to draw you right into its bewitching heart, its scintillating prose, its plush and elegant characters vibrant with darkness and complexity. Indeed, whether middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, or no other life by Brian Moore, and many others, the excerpts are nothing less than portals that promise to transport the reader to jaw-dropping literary experiences.
Bloomsbury 35 is not a book to be consumed in one gulp. It is eaten slowly, extract by extract, piece by piece. Some will not be able to reach an agreement. But many will trigger glimmers of greater need. Perhaps you will read a little more about everything that speaks to you and arouses your curiosity. Maybe you’ll end up ordering a book or three. I know I did. In other words, Bloomsbury 35 isn’t just a collector’s item — it’s also a triumph of the publisher’s bookseller spirit.
The critic is a journalist and author.