Category Archives: isaiah_berlin

back to the backlist

russianthinkers.jpg An article in last Sunday’s NYT got me thinking about how book sales can be affected by media, in quite different ways than music, or even movies are, as illustrated in Chris Anderson’s blog mentioned here by Sebastian Mary. While bands, and even cineasts, are increasingly using the Web to share and/or distribute their productions for free, they are doing it in order to create a following; their future live audience in a theater or club. Something a bit different happens with classical music, and here I include contemporary groups that don’t fit the “band” label, where the concert experience usually precedes the purchase of the music. In the case of classical music, the public is usually people who can afford very high prices to see true luminaries at a great concert hall, and who probably don’t even know how to download music. The human aspect of the live show is what I find fascinating. A great soprano might be having a bad night and may just not hit that high note for which one paid that high price, but nothing beats the magic of sound produced by humans in front of one’s eyes and ears. Though I love listening to music alone, and the sounds of the digestion of the person sitting next to me in the theater mortify me, I wouldn’t exchange the experience of the live show for its perfectly digitized counterpart.
coastofutopia.jpg This long preface to illustrate a similar, but rather odd, phenomenon. Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin has disappeared from all bookshops in New York. Anne Cattaneo, the dramaturg of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” (reviewed here by Jesse Wilbur) which opened at Lincoln Center on Nov. 27, provided in the show’s Playbill a list titled “For Audience Members Interested in Further Reading” with Russian Thinkers at the top. Since then, the demand for the book has been such, that Penguin has ordered two reprintings (3,500 copies) for the first time in the twelve years since the book has been printed, and which used to sell about 36 copies a month in the whole US. “A play hardly ever drives people to bookstores” says Paul Daly a book buyer, but Stoppard’s trilogy has moved its audience to resort not only to the learned notes inserted into the Playbill, but to further erudition on the Internet in order to figure out the more than 70 characters depicting Russia’s 19th century amalgam of intellectuals dreaming of revolution.
Penguin has asked Henry Hardy, one of the original editors of the book to prepare a new edition that could be reissued as a Penguin Classic. If all this is product of a play whose audience is evidently interested in extracting, and debating, the meaning of its characters, a networked edition would have made great sense. Printed matter seems to have proven insufficient here.