New Directions Read-a-thon Honors 75 Years of Good Books

James Laughlin, founder of New Directions.

New Directions’ 75th Anniversary celebration at Cooper Union last night began with a recorded reading of Dylan Thomas’s poem “In My Craft or Sullen Art.” The lines “I labour by singing light / Not for ambition or bread,” did seem appropriate for a publisher known for its refusal to compromise literary experimentation to commercial ends. New Directions’ president, Barbara Epler, had dedicated the event to Thomas, whose birthday it happened to be, as well as to Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish poet published by New Directions who recently won the Nobel Prize, and to the publishing house’s founder James Laughlin.

The literary celebrities who participated read from their favorite New Directions authors. Lou Reed went first, choosing Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Nicole Krauss read from the Israeli writer Yoel Hoffman’s The Christ of Fish. Francine Prose discussed Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka. Ms. Prose wrote the introduction for the New Directions reissue of the book and was compensated for her labor with her pick of the New Directions catalog. She said she ordered a box of the Swiss writer Robert Walser’s collection The Microscripts, which she now brings as a gift to dinner parties. The stories themselves, which were written in miniscule script on small strips of paper, are reproduced in the book. “It couldn’t be an e-book,” said Ms. Prose.

Readings of George Oppen (by Paul Auster), Eliot Weinberger (by Rackstraw Downes) and Tennessee Williams (by Carroll Baker) followed, but the highlight of the evening proved to be Anne Carson. She read an excerpt from her book Nox, an epitaph for her brother based loosely on the Latin “Poem 101” by Catallus. Ms. Carson read from Catallus’s words about his brother in Latin and from her own poem while a saxophonist played solo notes to her right and a video of two dancers was projected behind her.