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Ralph Gardner Jr: The Alice

Ann Birckmayer at the Furthermore offices in Hudson,NY
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Ann Birckmayer at the Furthermore offices in Hudson,NY

Consider the illustrated book. Or what some might call an “art book.” These are the tomes that reside on coffee tables, double as decor in shelter magazine living rooms, or just about any room in the house, and in a pinch can serve as a doorstop on a windy day.

I say consider them because I rarely do, even though our house abounds in them.

However, when you actually take the time to crack the spin a rather interesting thing happens. They have the power to transport you to the galleries of the Louvre, or Ansel Adams’ New Mexico or wherever their authors, photographers and editors have deemed worthy of exploration.

That’s the thing about art books. Because of their traditionally large format they possess a power to engage that anticipate technologies such as the Internet and virtual reality. In certain ways they may even be superior because of their tactile nature.

The simple act of turning the page is part of the reader’s contribution to the process. Come to think of it, art books trigger a certain sense of wonder that most of us might not have experienced on a regular basis since childhood when a picture book seemed a portal to another world where fantasy and reality became blissfully indistinguishable.

There’s actually a prestigious award for illustrated books. For all I know there are lots of them. For all I know there may even be a red carpet Oscars for art books.

But I’m familiar with one in particular. It’s called The Alice. And it’s awarded annually by Furthermore, a non-profit publishing program based in a second floor walk-up on Warren Street in Hudson, NY.

But don’t let its modest offices deceive you. Since it was created in 1995 by Joan Davidson, a philanthropist, Hudson Valley resident, and former New York State Parks Commissioner, Furthermore has given over $5 million in grants. And the Alice – it’s named in honor of Joan’s mother, Alice Manheim Kaplan, a collector of illustrated books – comes with a $25,000 prize. Those who make the Alice’s short list receive $5,000 each.

I paid a visit to Furthermore’s office on a recent afternoon and met with Ann Birckmayer, its administrator. The offices consist of a desk for Joan, one for Ann and shelves and shelves of book. Actually, a couple of copies of every one of the over twelve hundred books Furthermore has had a hand in publishing.

Before you send in your novel or memoir you should know that grants are awarded to nonfiction books that already have a commitment to publish from a university press or its like.

Past grantees have included “Gotham,” Mike Wallace’s Pulitzer Prize winning history of New York City; Leila Philip’s Hudson Valley memoir “A Family Place”; and “Lichens of North America,” a biblically proportioned tome devoted to those plant-like things that grow on rocks and trees and that I frankly hadn’t given much thought until I came across it in Furthermore’s office.

That’s the other thing about coffee table books – though I don’t mean to diminish the accomplishment of “Lichens” or its authors or publisher, Yale University Press by describing it as such – they have a way of revealing worlds you perceived only dimly if at all. And at 795 pages “Lichens of North America” is an encyclopedia, a cornucopia, a colorful pageant of lichens.

By the way, now that I’ve started reading about them lichens are a unique form of plant life, the product of a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungus. If I see any problem with the work, which is approximately the size and weight of a settee, it’s that it would present challenges to take along in your backpack if you were hiking the Appalachian Trail.

But why Hudson, NY for Furthermore’s offices rather than, say, midtown or lower Manhattan or wherever publishing’s epicenter is located these days? Ann Birckmayer, who happens to be a lifelong Kinderhook resident told me: “Joan loves the Hudson River Valley and really wanted to contribute to its cultural life. Locating Furthermore and The Alice here was a way to do that.”

Three books are in contention for this year’s Alice, and they provide a sense of the breath of proposals and works that arrive over Furthermore’s transom. Or that did before the age of the Internet and the PDF.

There’s Debi Cornwall: Welcome to Camp America, Inside Guantanamo Bay. Ann tried to explain it to me, and the symbolism behind its loose-leaf pages, but I’ll just have to wait to see the finished product. The book, by conceptual artist Debi Cornwall, is a glimpse into the U.S. Naval Station through photographs, government documents and first-person accounts.

Then there’s “O’er the Wide and Tractless Sea,” devoted to original art of the Yankee Whale Hunt and published by the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I suppose that’s somewhat self-explanatory.

The third finalist for this year’s Alice is “Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin.”

Ironically, while Hudson was something of a backwater when Furthermore started in the mid-90’s, today the town only adds to the publishing program’s luster.

Ann said, “It is not unusual for a grantee from California to say, ‘Oh, I’m so envious you’re located in Hudson. I was there last summer. It’s such an amazing place.’”

“That’s new in the last five years,” Ann added, as she looked out her window at Baba Louie’s pizzeria and the Hudson firehouse where firefighters were hosing down a gleaming engine. “Hudson, and the things it’s producing and the people it’s producing, is connected to all these locales around the world.”

While Furthermore’s roots and heart may be in the Hudson Valley, the Alice will be awarded this year, as it has in years past, in the Rare Book Room at the Strand Book Store in Manhattan. The date is October 29th.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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