Among the slurry of small boutique books that seem to be the current rage in publishing, Denis Donoghue's On Eloquence (Yale, 2008) is one of the more interesting offerings. Donoghue thinks of eloquence as "the dancing of speech," and a value in itself, not a mechanism to pursue other goals. Although I am not familar with all of the sources that Donoghue uses, as a general-interest reader I can find nuggets in this kind of mini-book. The book is a mixture of personal reminiscence and commentary on the effect of words in a wide variety of settings, social, political and personal.
This reminds me of James Merrill's comment that he enjoyed the English language in its billiard-ball sense, of setting words spinning off each other. Merrill is sometimes criticized as being a poet of surfaces, yet much of what we are aware of in life consists of surfaces, and we consider beauty a virtue. In fact, another of the recent boutique offerings, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (Harper Collins, 2004) by the late John O'Donohue is dedicated entirely to this subject.
Eloquence for its own sake. Beauty for its own sake. These are examples of a whole string of short books that seem to have come about owing to the author's personal interest in a subject that at first glance appears obscure and unlikely to attract readers. Yet they do.
The prime example from recent years is Dava Sobel's Longitude (Walker, 1995), a short, tiny book about the invention of an accurate maritime measuring device that is no longer in use. What could be more obscure and less likely to find an audience? Yet it found millions.
This seems to be the archetype that led to such books as Eloquence, Beauty, Eric Wilson's Against Happiness (FSG 2008) a fascinating but brief offering about people's unfortunate desire for a life of dubious smiles, Alan Lightman's A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit (Pantheon, 2005), Carl Honore's more substantial but heavily anecdotal In Praise of Slowness (Harper, 2004) and such richer offerings as Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style (Harper, 2003) and Robert Grudin's American Vulgar: the Politics of Manipulation versus the Culture of Awareness (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006).
There are variants of the personal short-book that don't fall easily into categories. Among these are Gordon Smith's Remembering Garrett, (Carroll & Graf, 2006), a brief story of a young person's suicide that is a remarkably personal sharing-session by a sitting U.S. Senator about his late son, and how that loss affected his family and the way he worked in the political arena. Kendall Hailey's splendid The Day I Became an Autodidact (Dell, 1988), written when she was a teenager, about ways of learning and the odd expectations of young people by society, is longer than some but an almost purely personal story.
Even such offerings as W. H. Auden's 1976 The Prolific and the Devourer (Ecco), essentially a much shorter, more organized set of comments similar to his A Certain World (Viking, 1970), fall into the category of boutique bookettes on topics of personal interest. The market has always been there; many of John Jay Chapman's wonderful essays of a hundred years ago first appeared as very small books and Victor Gollancz issued his commentary Our Threatened Values (Gollancz, 1946) in such a format. Moving from eloquence for its own sake to rhetoric for the purpose of persuasion, we can look to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and even the Federalist papers for more examples.
Even as society bemoans the shrinkage of commercial publishing and writers claw their desks at the latest rejection, it is clear that for those whose passion can be set forth in a readable way, the market really does exist, and we the readers can expect to see a continuing flow of small books focused on all manner of topics.