Melville House Publication of Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid (Neversink Library, June 12)

May 20, 2012  |   Uncategorized   |   Todd Fine 
Melville House Publication of Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid (Neversink Library, June 12)

Hovering above all of the events, congressional resolutions, and media outreach efforts, the central goal of Project Khalid has always been to make Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid accessible and available to a wide audience. With the upcoming release of Melville House’s new edition of the novel, which validates our long-held view that this work was worthy of republication by a major press, I would like to revisit the project’s origins and make some comments about this excellent publishing house and its brilliant “Neversink Library” project.

In 2005, during a period of great crisis and uncertainty with the escalating horrors in Iraq, I went in search of a text that might help illuminate how the early Arab-American thinkers and writers who lived in Manhattan conceived of the Arab-American contact and its potential. After doing some internet searches, I stumbled across a lecture by Dr. Suheil Bushrui of the University of Maryland (now an advisory council member of Project Khalid) which advanced the argument that Ameen Rihani was a unique figure who dedicated his life to teaching Americans about the Arab world and its culture, and in turn Arab intellectual circles about American philosophy and political thought. He also mentioned that Rihani wrote a quite interesting novel called The Book of Khalid, a work that takes place substantially in New York City and offers a cultural synthesis of East and West.

Immediately, I felt that this work sounded unique and appealing (and, as somebody reasonably well-read, I was surprised that I had never heard of it), but after making some initial efforts to buy a copy I was shocked at how hard it was to find. Out-of-print in the United States since its original publication in 1911, the book was not available for purchase at online bookstores like Amazon, and it could only be found at a few dozen libraries in the country. Ultimately, to even be able to read a copy, I realized that I would have to go to the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library (where books cannot be checked out) and peruse the work there. So one morning I resolved to arrive early and see whether this obscure text had anything to offer.

After reading page one of the 1911 first edition, with its opening line about a “New York Skyscraper in the shape of a Pyramid,” I was transfixed and ended up completing the work in one long sitting. The sophistication of its style and philosophy, the power of its cross-cultural imagery, its bold attempt to fashion a politics out of Arab-American contact, and its wry sense of humor, above all, impressed upon me the merit and bold venture of this forgotten work, and, with its obvious importance as a key Arab-American cultural narrative with significant political import, that evening I resolved that trying to expose and revive this work, in honor of Rihani and to reach the American public, would become a personal mission.

However, the idea of approaching a publisher and persuading them to release an out-of-print, public domain text with no demonstrable market demand seemed absurd, and, at the time, I had no contacts or connections that would make a project like this imaginable. However, recognizing the rising importance of e-books and appreciating the ideal of making texts freely available online, I first began the process of constructing a free e-book edition from scans. Eventually, this edition was hosted on the first Project Khalid website, and the “eternal project” planned to continue to digitize early Arab-American texts, Rihani’s in particular. Later, the core of this e-text was entered into the popular Project Gutenberg e-book website.

By 2009, I was living in Washington, D.C. and orchestrating the establishment of the the Global Zero campaign on nuclear weapons, yet in the back of mind I knew that the 100th anniversary of The Book of Khalid‘s publication could be an opportunity to revisit its reputational deficit. After a chance opportunity to discuss the novel on the Arab Radio & Television (ART) program What’s Happening? with Will Youmans, I was introduced to members of the Rihani family who happened to live in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. We met and discussed the idea of a centennial campaign, and the Library of Congress, CUNY Graduate Center, and New York Public Library events; the congressional resolution; and my tour of the Gulf all emerged from these discussions and with their support. However, despite all of these planned activities, the central goal of Project Khalid to make the book broadly available had not been achieved. During 2010, I had spent a great deal of time trying to interest trade publishers in the work, but I was continually told that such a public domain text was unlikely to be attractive or lucrative. It seemed that we would have to use the anniversary itself to demonstrate the book’s merit, especially in the context of the Arab Spring which only made its content more relevant and appealing.

The very morning of the Library of Congress symposium, I received a telephone call from Valerie Merians, one half of the family affair, with Dennis Loy Johnson, of Melville House Publishing. She expressed interest in reprinting The Book of Khalid, and after the event I was able to give her more detail about its publication history and literary importance. Eventually, they also asked me to write a brief afterword, which gives some detail about Rihani’s biography and addresses core themes of the work.

Now, on June 12, 2012, this edition is prepared for release under Melville’s Neversink Library series. The Neversink Library is a quite admirable project to “champion books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored.” And the series title comes from a nicely appropriate passage in Herman Melville’s White Jacket:

“I was by no means the only reader of books on board the Neversink. Several other sailors were diligent readers, though their studies did not lie in the way of belles-lettres. Their favourite authors were such as you may find at the book-stalls around Fulton Market; they were slightly physiological in their nature. My book experiences on board of the frigate proved an example of a fact which every book-lover must have experienced before me, namely, that though public libraries have an imposing air, and doubtless contain invaluable volumes, yet, somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much.”

The Book of Khalid fits perfectly within Melville’s Neversink framework. Overlooked, it has been overshadowed by Kahlil Gibran’s singular phenomenon The Prophet (despite the inferences that Khalid influenced and inspired Gibran’s work). Underappreciated, critics have not always had the patience to explore the novel’s literary influences, which explain some of its possibly off-putting stylistic idiosyncrasies. Looked askance at, the novel’s dual American and Arab themes made it an oddity in both literary domains. And, finally, foolish ignored, the novel had been out-of-print in the United States since its original publication and has never truly been processed by the American literary and cultural establishment (despite its uncanny relevance to the events of the last decade).

The final production of the novel, with its orange color scheme and tasteful font use, is very beautiful. Melville House’s Christopher King developed a consistent, elegant design for the Neversink series, and here he explains the philosophy of its use of silhouettes.

As a publishing house, Melville House, especially with their New York City roots, connects with Rihani’s legacy and his extensively articulated views on the function of literature and art. In an age of cynical marketing in the publishing world, with literature and fiction often getting short shrift, Melville House consistently and insistently seems to publish works of significant literary merit. And their project of returning to classics makes a bold statement. Herman Melville’s own reputation required a boost decades after his death, and it is quite fitting for a press named after him to go mining for other neglected writers and works.

Melville House seem to embody Rihani’s motto of “Say thy say, and go thy way.” Not intimidated by the giants in book publishing and sales, their feisty and unparalleled literary blog Moby Lives makes a daily stand for cultural sanity and for economic fairness against monopoly. In an era when most cultural actors and institutions are terrified of politics, their courage to emphasize the power of political expression in literature, and to take their own stands against phenomena which affect not only their business but cultural production itself, has earned my abiding respect. As Dennis Loy Johnson affirmed recently in The Economist, Melville House seems to be an artistic project, more than a modern business enterprise, at its core.

I encourage all admirers of Ameen Rihani to pick up a copy of this edition of The Book of Khalid, and please contact me (toddfine@projectkhalid.org, +1 857-234-0920) or Melville House (Ariel Bogle, ariel@mhpbooks.com) if you are interested in writing a review or holding an event in connection with its release.