Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"Read A Little Poetry..."

Poetry doesn't abide by the usual rules of bookselling. There are bookstores, otherwise perfectly adequate bookstores, where poetry has been all but abandoned as a saleable category of stock. In such stores, there will be reprints of a few classics, some fat and scholarly anthologies, perhaps a themed hardcover or two, suitable to anniversaries or weddings, and then either nothing, or the kind of poetry, purchased by grandmothers, and meant to inspire graduates, amuse contemporaries on their unlooked-for late birthdays, or comfort ladies who've lost their hair to cancer. Nothing wrong with any of that, so far as it goes. Those bookstores that bring in a wider selection, that order in multiple copies of the latest Mary Oliver, and stock Dante
in more than one translation, that keep Fernando Passoa, at least in English, often unsold for years, such bookstores become less likely every day. The sales of poetry in such places seldom justify the selection. The section is maintained as a matter of duty, which, you will agree, is a rather quaint word when applied to contemporary retail, even in bookselling. There is, right here in Seattle, a marvelous store, specializing just in poetry, Open Books: A Poem Emporium. The owner's a poet, so he may be a little mad (they often are you know, historically.) He and his fellows must at least be used to doing without. Bless 'em. How else to explain so glorious an institution as a poetry bookstore?! Anyone who hasn't been should go. It's a wonderful place. When I go, I feel I should bring a covered dish. Instead I buy books for friends I can't usually quite afford, though the prices are quite good. Go and do likewise.

Even working in a very good, old fashioned -- dare I say dutiful? -- bookstore, so much of the poetry that comes in new seems to pass directly to the shelves unnoticed even by me. New poetry tends to be reviewed, if reviewed at all, in rather specialized publications, periodicals written by and for, as it were, and as I am no poet, I tend to find new poets by way of The New Yorker Magazine, or by quoted recommendations from poets I do know on the back jackets of new books with arresting covers, or because of the personal recommendations of poet/friends, like my friend R. I am lucky also to have friends among my regular customers, sophisticated, better-educated, folk, who read poetry regularly and seriously, but who do not write it themselves. Finding such a friend, by the way, is not as difficult as it sounds. I wouldn't necessarily look to find them at poetry readings. I enjoy such occasions myself, but I've learned to slip out before the general post-reading-chat, or at least without mentioning where I work, for fear of being button-holed about getting someone's chapbook stocked. I've found over the years in bookstores, the best way to meet people who will make good recommendations, is to note customers with poetry being purchased or read in the store, and if the poet or the book is unknown to me, I ask about it. One has to be patient though, and willing to accept quite a few mumbled rebuffs. Poetry readers tend to be solitary souls in my experience, shy if not suspicious of uninvited interest in their purchases, at least when my hairy self suddenly looms up before them, soliciting opinions. I've learned to be gentler with them than is my normal presentation. But if one is lucky, the poetry reader will be neither an unpublished poet, nor unsociable, nor Heaven forbid, looking for recommendations from so sorry a source as me, and may even be only too eager to be chatted up about David Wagoner, as was, for example my regular customer and now my friend, J., who has introduced me now to many Northwest poets I, an outlander, might never have known otherwise.

Meanwhile though, I cruise through the poetry shelves on my own, now and again, as I did just today, and find books that may or may not be all that new, but that are absolutely new to me.

What Goes On: New and Selected Poems 1995 - 2009, by Stephen Dunn, published by W. W. Norton, for example, is the latest collection by a poet I first encountered reading, I should think, The New Yorker. I'm terribly excited to have his new book with me now. Now the man won the Pulitzer Prize before I'd ever read him, which should give you some idea of my credentials for endorsing him here. Having found him though, by whatever means, I am now a regular reader and an enthusiast.

Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry, selected and translated by Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin, published by Harcourt Brace, seems to have been on our shelves since at least October last, but I never saw it until today. The text is dual language, the original, beautiful Russian on the left, Nabokov's translation facing. The Russian does me no good as a sadly monolingual reader, but it looks fine, and this
collection would seem to be, from the introduction, unbelievably, the first truly comprehensive collection of the great novelist's translations of poetry. I can't imagine. Obviously, after reading no further than the introduction and a few poems, this is a book I may have to own. How wonderful to see it there on the shelf, finally, after so many months. (I do wonder though, this book must surely have been reviewed even in such common book reviews as I read? How did I miss it?)

All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems, by Linda Gregg, published by Graywolf Press, would be the most recent example of a new book by an author I came to know only because a friend put an earlier book into my hands, turned to a poem he knew I would like, and bid me, "read." Gregg is quite wonderful. "New and Selected" is a phrase I particularly like, as it suggests a friendly nod to my usual, woeful neglect of even poets I like, without any hint that I've been entirely remiss -- "Complete and Collected" tells me I sadly have not been paying attention even to The New York Times obituaries. Fortunately, Ms. Gregg is obviously, quite robustly alive and productive.

Daily Dose

From To Wit: Skin and Bones of Comedy, by Penelope Gilliatt


"There is a myth that women don't really like W. C. Fields, the most prejudiced, unruly and sloshed comedian in cinema history. It arises, I suppose, because he loathed brats and felt genial to mayhem; and the male sex, which chiefly invents myths, along with slang, war, symphonic music and obscenities, obviously has an interest in assuming that women love children come what may, and that they will always elect to make life work. Once start admitting that women frequently cherish quite urgent desires to thwack infants on the head, and that they may have the same fellow feeling as any other human being for W. C. Fields' dogged anarchy, and I suppose that civilization as we know it would come to an end."

from Guts

Monday, March 30, 2009

An Brief Interview (with a few recommendations because she can't help herself,) with Nancy Pearl

Librarians have not always been kindly treated by me, anymore than I was by most of them. Now that we're grown, there are a number of friends who have joined that tribe and yet kept my affection, and even one librarian, perhaps the most famous living American librarian, I've come to consider my friend. As unlikely as it seems, given my distrust of the average library-professional, I was already fond of her as an author and radio personality long before I had the chance to meet her in the bookstore, where she is a frequent and honored visitor, and something like our only unpaid employee. Other booksellers and customers can not help but ask the woman about books. As the author of Book Lust and it's sequels, Nancy Pearl has made a second career out of the best of her first; traveling the country, and in fact the world, recommending the best books, teaching and lecturing, and spreading both literacy and the good fellowship of books everywhere she goes. She is, in her public life, an inspiration and a wonder. Privately, to the extent that she is now allowed a private moment when in public places, she is a hoot. She is, for any who might need a description, a diminutive lady, though not quite so small as the Librarian Action Figure modeled on her, a stylish dresser, and genuine charmer. Had we both not already good husbands, I'd take her dancing without so much as a by-your-leave. She has become a friend, or I wouldn't have troubled her with such banal questions as these, and as a friend, I of course want to know about her books, the books she owns, the books she keeps, the librarian's personal library. Short of sneaking into her garage and poking around myself, this seemed the easiest and more polite way to find out something of the good lady's favorite books. As always, she surprises and delights me here again.

Brad Craft: Thanks for doing this, my dear Miss Fancy. You're most kind. I know that, as a librarian, you spent a good part of your professional life recommending books. In fact, you've made a whole second career from doing just that! But rather than ask you to do any such thing here, I'm more inclined to ask you about the books you own. I know you receive books by the hundreds to review, but do you keep many books? How many books would you say you own?

Nancy Pearl: I do get lots of books from publishers – all of whom want me to review them, preferably on NPR’s Morning Edition. I don’t know how many books I own, but it really isn’t that many. When LibraryThing started, I added all my books (which was useful, because then I could see all the duplicates I had purchased over the years), and I had about 1500 books. But that was a while ago, and I’ve added some since then. Now, sadly, mostly all my “real” books – the ones I love – are boxed up in my garage, and the books that are on the bookshelves in my house are ones that have come in for me to review, or books that are under consideration for an award for which I am one of the judges, and a few mass market paperbacks that I grab whenever I have to take an airplane somewhere.

BC: Do you write in books, in your own books I mean?

NP: I don’t write in the books I own. I think that’s because I find it presumptuous or something to think that I would have something to add to what an author said. Or to comment on it, favorably or not. Or maybe when I was a child I was punished for writing in a book, and have never done it since. In any case, something prevents from writing in the books.

BC: What was the first book you loved as a child, and do you own it now?

NP: One of the books I loved was Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. (I was one of those horse-loving girls). I do still have the book, which someone must have given me as a gift, since we couldn’t afford to buy books. (The author) autographed for me when I was about 10. I probably haven’t reread it since I was 12 or so, though. Many of the books I own (that are boxed up) are children’s books that I loved when I first read them as a kid. They’re mostly ex-library books, in terrible condition, and no real collector would have them on his or her shelves. Like the Henry book, I’m pretty sure I’ll never reread them, but I still like to have them around, just in case. When some of my old favorites have come back into print, I have replaced my worn out copies – like the Betsy-Tacy books, or the fantasies by Edward Eager. And some of my children books I’ll end up giving to my three granddaughters when they’re old enough to read them.

BC: What was the first book you remember buying with your own money?

NP: Don’t laugh – it was Peyton Place by Grace Metalius – I remember the drug store where I bought it. Whew – what a read.

BC: I tried that one when a marvelous biography of Metalius came out a few years back. Though I didn't finish the novel. I suppose one had to be there, so to speak. Where is your personal library and what does it look like?

NP: As I mentioned above, all my real books are boxed up. But before I packed them up, before my last move, they were a very eclectic collection of titles, mostly fiction, and many of them being what I would characterize as either comfort reading (books by D.E. Stevenson and Elizabeth Cadell had pride of place), or books that meant a lot to me when I read them – like Midnight’s Children or The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy or The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott or – my favorite novel of all time – A Gay and Melancholy Sound by Merle Miller. I am not a first edition sort of person – that part never mattered to me; it was always what was inside the book that was important.

BC: Good to see Merle Miller's name again! What are the books on your night-stand?

NP: Let’s see – Tim Gautreaux’s The Clearing (I just read his newest book, The Missing, and really liked it, so went back and started reading his earlier stuff. I had never read them because I was under the misapprehension that his books were too violent. They’re not at all and I have no idea how I got that notion. I’m so glad I disabused myself of it by reading The Missing). I’m also rereading all the early early Dick Francis. My favorite of all time is Nerve.

BC: You've met and interviewed many wonderful writers, do you keep presentation copies? Do you want autographs?

NP: I don’t ask for or keep most presentation copies, but I do have a first edition, first printing, autographed copy of Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, which I got when the book first came out and he read at the book store in Tulsa where I worked. I think there were only about 10 people there – this was way before he was well known.

BC: I can not imagine that you have the time, but are there favorite books you still plan to reread? Do you own copies of these?

NP: I don’t want to reread anything, but there are lots of books that I want to read again for the first time. Did I say that before? I do own copies of most of those books.

BC: A sentimental distinction, that, and one with which I can completely sympathize. Is owning a book better than borrowing it? Obviously I think so, but if you do, can you say why?

NP: There are just some books that I want on my own bookshelves, or in my own boxes in my own garage. I would feel bereft without them. Borrowing makes sense for lots of books for me, but there are some I want to have, just to have them. I hate seeing copies of books I love at book stores, because I want them to be on other people’s shelves as well.

BC: From your lips, as they say... Is there any book you wish you owned? Perhaps a book you once owned but don't now?

NP: When I moved from Tulsa to Seattle, we got rid of lots of books. Every night, I would talk to my husband (who was still living in Tulsa, while I was here) and he would pull books off the shelves and read me the title and I would tell him to save it or give it away, so it went in one of two boxes. Somehow, one of the “save” boxes got given away, and I lost a whole raft of books. Little by little I’ve re-found many of them, but there are still books that I’ve never been able to find. One of those is Clancy Sigal’s Going Away. Also, there are a couple of novels by Ruth Doan McDougall – One Minus One and The Cost of Living. I’m sure there are more, but I only remember them when I would go look for them and not find them.

BC: Finally, if you could talk to any writer, living or dead, that you haven't, who would that be?

NP: I find that it’s so chancy to meet an author of books you love – sometimes it turns out that they’re not very nice and then I’m stuck because I can’t read their books again. Mostly, with authors of books I love, I just want to gush about how much I love them, or stare at them with adoration.

BC: Well, thank you, my dear, dear friend, for gushing a bit for me. I adore you.

Daily Dose

From The Grave of Alice B. Toklas and Other Reports From the Past, by Otto Friedrich


"High-school teachers are among the most important influences on one's life, not just intellectually but psychologically as well. The pity is that so many of them are so rotten -- so incompetent and so indifferent. But in any average school there are usually a few teachers who can somehow make any subject fascinating. In Concord High School, I had two."

From Reunion in Concord

Neither the Worst...

Having recently written a post about a teacher of great reputation, never met but in his books, I look around me this morning at all the even less likely instruction I've had from books; at the essayists and critics, who taught me English, and how and what to read, and why, at the historians who made history authentic and relevant, avoiding the didacticism and drudgery of textbooks and time-lines and tests. I look at the books by scientists that, as I approached middle age, finally, in language as simple as this, revealed the universe to me, allowed me to see into the stars and mathematics and the physical world for the first time, at the philosophers and poets and saints who taught me something more than even I had from my parents of goodness and beauty and the power of contemplation. I review the novelists and playwrights, the travelers, the biographers and memoirists, the anthologists and editors, the personalities, the genius, in just this room, representing the best of my education, the books that have been and are my best teachers, and I remember a few of my others.

At least since Lamb, the reminiscence of school days is a commonplace of the personal essay. Not all such are recollected so fondly as Lamb's time as "a blue coat boy," of course. "Such, Such Were the Joys," by George Orwell, is a more mixed history, for example. My own memories of my teachers, are likewise mixed.

I had a few, a very few, teachers who deserve just such testimonials as are usual to the form, but I think they or their shades will have to wait a bit longer to be thanked. I am not much in the mood this morning. Likewise the worst of my many instructors in the public educational system, however deserving of disapprobation, do not really concern me just now either. The teachers I am thinking of and intending, briefly, to describe here were none of them good, but none were so wholly gawdawful, so mean or stupid or violent, as those I truly hated. (Gym teachers as a breed, deserve their own vivisection.) My spite, like my respect, may one day flower here, but not today. The simple incompetence I am concerned with now is of a kind that too infrequently passes, if not unnoticed, then without memorial, in even so humble a spot as this. It is the dirge of the drudge I sing this morning, it is the memory of the less than memorable I record.

Why not? Who's to say such do not deserve at least as much, from a less than grateful, if now somewhat more forgiving former pupil? I don't aim to name names, hurt the feelings of any still living, however unlikely they may be to ever find what I've said about them here. But reading, for example, Otto Friedrich's essay about his own school days, having just reread Orwell's, I notice how little time is spent in retrospect with the vast majority of those otherwise earnest, bored and boring, easily forgettable instructors of the young who constituted the majority union membership in every public school I attended. There are occasions to celebrate the exceptional teachers, even the occasional award, but what of the less than stellar men and women who leave little or no impression on the minds of their pupils, but who simply taught the little they knew how, and then were spared not so much as another thought?

To review them all would take more time and patience than I have. To remember so much as their names would require consulting yearbooks. I remember them more for their mild eccentricities of dress, or speech, or manner, the nearest thing to character they possessed and the nicknames that resulted and were passed down from class to class, than by even the subjects they taught. What, for example, did "Foamy" teach? He was an irascible little fat man with a comb-over and dandruff, whose moniker came from the spittle that collected in the corners of his mouth and threaten to fly out if he spoke to fast. Poor soul. There were any number given these far from affectionate names, usually for no better reason than some equally, mildly disturbing trait or tick. "The Purple Hippo" was a large and laconic composition teacher who wore too often the same boldly colored pants-suit. "Dud" was so called because he made jokes at which nobody had laughed in all the years he taught. There was a younger woman, unlike most of my elementary school teachers, already married, who taught me something in the sixth grade, though I don't remember what. All I do remember of her was her propensity to tears. What on earth made the woman so lachrymose? Certainly not anything we did to her. Her students tended to embarrassment when she went wet-eyed, and embarrassment is a killing thing in the sixth grade, so her students were, if unsympathetic, always docile enough. I don't think we even bothered her with a nickname.

What on earth made these people teachers? To a man and a woman they were as dull as "Dud," seemingly no more interested in their subjects or their students then we were in them. Surely there must have been other employment opportunities that they would not have found so drearily taxing? It wasn't exhaustion that seemed to render them so uninspired. That is the usual explanation, that such teachers had simply "burnt out." I don't accept that at all. Many were quite young still when I knew them, and the majority of the old had reputations for ineffectualness dating back, in some cases, as far as my parents' time in school. Just as there were very good teachers already evident among the annual crowd of student-teachers, come in from the local teachers' colleges, so there were the hopeless, already at twenty four or five, plotting careers of plodding indifference. The ability to teach may well be inborn. Experience may improve upon a new teacher's skills, but experience can not make of poor teacher a better one. The only result of such experience for such teachers as I am describing here, was resignation, sadly meant here as a state of suspended effort, rather than an option for doing the right thing.

The fact that so many contributed so little to my own education was perhaps the inspiration for me to insist as persistently as I did that the few who might be made to do so, were. Some were reluctant, either personally or professionally, what a pest I must have been, but I would not be refused and pursued those who might actually teach me something worth knowing as a fury might pester a prophet. Even if all some of them did was put books into my hands and send me on my way, to them, as to the best of my teachers, I am genuinely grateful.

As for that anonymous crew through whose classrooms I passed and whose names are now as lost to me as mine must long since have been to them, I hear from my nephews and from other more recent students, from as far away as Texas and as near as the campus just over the hill, they abide. Whatever might be said of them, whatever criticism or epithets they deserve, they go on, untroubled if not utterly unaware. I think that may be the one valuable lesson I could be said to truly have learned from them: endurance. They taught me just a little, however unintentionally, collectively, what it means to not be dissuaded by anything so irrelevant as lack of talent or training or skill. If my books taught me how to read and how to write, how to think, at least my least memorable teachers may have taught me how to blog.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Good Dogs and Good People

Reading Dr. John Brown again, and thinking about dogs. Our first dog, or rather the first I remember from childhood, was a spaniel mix named Nelly Belle, who tended me as she had any of her own puppies and who indulged my brother and sister and myself as a grandmother would; allowing herself to be dressed up, for comic effect, in cowboy-hats and six-guns, for instance, without complaint, happy to play even games she must not have found nearly so amusing as we did. When she died, I don't remember. I must still have been quite small. Patience, if I had to reduce her to a single virtue, would be hers.

There were always dogs around me when I was still living at home, though most were hunting dogs, beagles and hounds, who lived in their own houses rather than ours, and whose lives revolved around my father, their master and companion in the woods. But there were also strays and abandoned animals throughout my childhood, and not just dogs and cats, the cats kept mostly to catch mice in the barns, but also horses and ponies, a raccoon, chickens and pigs, the last two naturally not seen as pets but as meat. (Though my father kept pigs just the once. Having raised them from piglets, they followed him as faithfully as dogs, and when the day came that these now enormous hogs were to be slaughtered, my father, as I remember it, could not be present, returning only after the butcher had been. Like many farmboys, my father is deeply sentimental about his animals, but would not think to not use any animal for the purpose for which they were intended. I do know he never raised an animal for food after those three pigs.)

I never really had animals of my own. I did have a pony, briefly, named Tom Tinker, but I was never much of a horseman, as my father had been raised to be by his father, who was a blacksmith. My brother and sister inherited all my father's joy and skill with animals, I none. As were all the horses and ponies about the place over the years, my pony was an animal saved. My father could not see any "intelligent, useful animal" abused or neglected, and so rescued those he could, often keeping them just long enough to find them better homes. I fell off my pony more than I rode him. My father the pony would follow around the fields, as docile and sweet as a dog, but Tom had an instinct about me, and he was quite right; I did not belong on his back. Eventually, my father, sighing, passed him along to a grateful and happier rider. To me, most of my father's animals represented chores, were distractions from my books and my friends, possibly seen even as rivals for my father's time and attention. The chickens I hated outright. My mother had had a hen as a pet, but then my mother was "a town girl," and during The Depression, when she was a child, many people in towns kept chickens. I hated the noise and the dirt and the work of keeping chickens. I hated the smell of their roost, and the rats they attracted. I hated the chickens for being too damned stupid to not get out of the way of a bicycle in time, for nesting in inappropriate places, like truck tires, if not watched. I hated the roosters particularly for their arbitrary and unpredictable displays of aggression, toward each other, toward me, and most ridiculously and dangerously, toward the dogs who plotted and waited for revenge until, once in awhile, they had it.

The horses I had little or nothing to do with, other than feeding them when required. My sister loved them. Her own horse, Lady, was a sweet and gentle old thing, and the only one of whom I was never frightened. One horse in particular, an albino mare with blind milky eyes, seemed a truly terrifying specter to me when I was little. I can remember her huge white face, her pink lips and yellow teeth, extended through the fence in what was probably a friendly gesture, but to me she was a monster.

Of the many cats who came and went, only one, Snowball, claims any special memory. She started life, as they all did, as just a stray and a mouser. But she hung on for years and was specially insistent about being recognized as uniquely adept at her job, regularly visiting the house to display her kills, and claiming our porch as by right, disdaining to stay in the barn. Snowball was something of a diva. Like all the cats my father could catch and feed, Snowball had been to the vet to be "fixed." Rather tragically, she would steal kittens from other cats in the vicinity, try to feed them herself, and resented my father's interference when he had to save and feed them himself. None of her adopted kittens ever survived for long, despite my father's attempts to help her with them. When Snowball got old and began losing more fights than she won with vermin and with other cats, she allowed my father, who had always built rather immovably solid and snug dog-houses for his hunters, using scrap wood from his factory job, to build her a proper house on our porch. For some time Snowball would have nothing much to do with sleeping inside, her house or ours, but eventually she moved in and stayed, in retirement, allowing herself to be fed on more common stuff than the game she'd hunted most of her life. When she finally chose to die, she walked away from her little handmade cottage and went out into the weeds she'd always thought of as hers. When my father found her, he buried her among all the unmarked but remembered graves of all those snatched kittens who had failed to thrive under her confused but well intentioned mothering.

We were not proper farmers, my father worked in a factory and my mother cleaned houses in town, but my father, having been raised in what was then truly the country, has been a hunter and a lover of animals all his life. My father without at least one beagle is as unthinkable as a my father without fields to walk in, rabbits to hunt, clean air to breath. Likewise my brother and sister have almost never been without a dog. I'm afraid I've never felt a similar need. More like my mother, I can be quite content with nothing but people in my house. But not even my mother proved to be entirely immune to the charm of a good dog.

Buster was a mutt, a small dog with an expressive and eager face. He was the last house-pet my parents ever kept. He had terrier in him and was as bright, and as naughty, as any small dog, indulged as children left home, could be. The amusement and affection he shared with my parents, particularly after their last child, myself, left home, was prodigious. There was nothing he could not get into, no place he could not hide in when a bath was anticipated, or burst from behind barking when he thought the place needed livening up. He ran and scampered and flipped like an acrobat, was an entertainer at heart, and filled, for awhile, an emptied house with so much love and noise that he did my parents much good at a time when they very much needed distraction. He even nipped a few of the more unpleasant relatives, shocked to find a dog in my mother's house, as neither side of the family kept animals indoors. I loved him particularly for that. He was killed on the increasingly busy road in front of my parents' house, as we all worried he would be, one day when, yet again, he ignored my father's stern rule to stay in the yard and let his exuberance take him too far out into danger. He was running in ever wider circles, as he loved to do, tempting disapproval, even death, in one last effort to entertain. He is buried under a huge stone in my parents' front yard, not but a few feet from where he was killed, something of a warning I suppose, to my father, but also because neither my father nor my mother would think to keep him nearer in death than he usually was in life; within the sound of his name, well remembered, but free.

All of my father's other pets are buried in the woods, in a place known only to him, and to my brother, who has sadly had dogs of his own to put there through the years. I discovered this spot once, or think I may have, as an adult, walking out into the summer on a visit home. It is a perfectly quiet, perfectly sunny spot, just on the edge of my father's property. The path to it has known few other visitors. I don't know that he goes there himself much these days, walking, and hunting, having become increasingly difficult for the old man lately. But he keeps one beagle still. She is a dear little thing, not much of a hunter, but then he isn't much of one himself these days.

The dogs I know now are only the ones who visit the bookstore. Dear T. occasionally brings in Willow, her extraordinarily calm and attentive Aussie, with whom she visits special-needs-children and prisoners. K. was just in this week with Peaches and Keebler, her two big, beautiful and affectionate friends. But our most frequent visitor, who has come to us almost daily for a very long time, Harris, is ill, her companion Bob, quite sure she will soon die from the cancer that was supposed to kill her before her fifteenth birthday last week. (T. decorated the Used Books Desk and had a party for Harris when she made it to that unlikely milestone. There were cupcakes for the two-footed, and special cookies for the four.) Harris is a bright-eyed little dog, long-haired and smaller than she appears, a bit lame, but still very much in control of her destiny. Just the other day she left Bob where he was and went herself to visit her usual cafes. This was unusual, to say the least. Everyone in the neighborhood was concerned when they saw her out alone. Eventually she was returned to her friend. I wonder if she didn't want to say goodbye on her on terms, to make her rounds just this once without worrying about Bob. I don't doubt she worries he won't manage to keep to their schedule when she's gone. Harris is a herder, Bob her only charge these days. She's earned her rest. He's earned all the affection the neighborhood has for him, and for Harris. I wish them both the best. The bookstore will not be the same, if and when either of them go.

Daily Dose

From The Fat Man and Infinity & Other Writings, by Antonio Lobo Antunes


"Whenever I go to supper at my parents' house, I leave there with my childhood stuck in my throat..."

From Antonio Joao Pedro Miguel Nuno Manuel

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Cheever

Blake Bailey's new biography, Cheever: A Life, has been widely reviewed already, or rather his subject has been subject to a renewed and largely prurient interest from the press. Bailey's book, for all its minutely detailed scandal, is, at least in my reading to date, a serious study of a great American writer. Bailey has clearly read all of Cheever closely and his criticism seems grounded and sound. Not the point of course for the reviewers. At seven hundred plus pages, such a weighty record of any writer's life -- so long as there's a convenient index -- is an opportunity to hit all the lows in what was, after all, in large part, the classical American rise followed by the expected drunken fall. (We do love a success in this country, so long as it can be charted as a cautionary tale.) My own difficulty with the book is neither with the dirt, though there is quite a bit turned, and turned again, herein, nor with Bailey's raking, which actually seems rather sweetly indulgent, considering his subject's absolute shittiness as a human being, but with the biographer's dogged insistence that this life, this writer, requires this biography. I don't know that that's true.

Cheever's daughter, Susan, wrote a rather painful memoir of her father in 1984, Home Before Dark. Her brother, Benjamin, edited his father's letters without any of the usual familial reticence, with, in fact, something more like his father's own ruthlessness. Allan Gurganus, among others, has already shared something of his unhappy affair with the man as well. And among his contemporaries, there were precious few who did not review, endorse and reminisce about the man and his work at the time of his death. So why 770 well researched pages now? Well... let's call it literary stagflation, wherein the reputation is reinflated, even as the somewhat stagnant "life" get one last vigorous stir before all the primary sources are dead and last judgements all passed. But I confess, if the subject, or in this case the work is interesting, I for one rather like a nice omnium-gatherum, into which one may dip without missing any narrative point, (know how this one ended.) In so big a book on so familiar a subject, I can read just the bits, for instance, about Falconer, in consideration for book club reading, without worrying that I might be messing up any potential reading straight through. I can dip, in other words, just like the newspaper reviewers.

The problem for me is that this biography is good enough, after roughly two hundred and fifty pages, particularly about Cheever's family and background, that I want to read it end to end. That would be well over six hundred pages of closely printed type. Now, I may do so yet. But wouldn't I rather be reading the stories and novels collected in the new Library of America volumes? Reading a huge life of, say, Lincoln, I may turn to Lincoln's writing to finish reading the full text of something quoted, but I don't feel obliged, if I trust his biographer (and I did trust, and do recommend David Herbert Donald.) I may want to read more of Lincoln's letters, or his Cooper Union speech, but those excursions are quickly concluded, and even reading about a briefer and less public life, as I recently did, in a critical study of Emily Dickinson, I did indeed turn hourly to her poems, but gaining rather than being distracted in having done so. But reading the life of a novelist... See the problem?

Bailey's biography may be well worth my time, but I have to wonder, having skipped forward after the first few of chapters, to see what he has to say about the composition of particular stories, to read the bit when Allan Gurganus, flush with youth, hair and Southern charm, actually comes on the scene, (forgive me,) to read about the making of the Burt Lancaster movie of "The Swimmer," if my renewed interest in Cheever would not have been better served by a less thorough biographer having written a less comprehensive biography.

There are writers whose lives were so long and eventful, whose output was so prodigious, whose novels are so many, that it seems unjust, if not impossible to encapsulate them and their work in anything less than multiple volumes. Walter Scott comes to mind, or Stendahl. I've read huge lives of both, and both were so traveled, so storied, as to require long study. But John Cheever? It is no slight to the man's memory, or to Bailey's biography, to suggest that I might have done without every detail of his WWII service, every awards-dinner late in life, every encounter with the actress, Hope Lang, etc. Moreover, not every product of Cheever's pen seems to require quite the same detailed discussion.

The inclination to write biography out of all proportion to the importance and interest of one's subject, tends to result in huge books about writers of small gift. The resulting biographical elephantiasis can be so grotesque as to defeat the presumed purpose of writing literary biography: to bring readers back to the subject's work. If Cheever was a major American writer, and I'm perfectly willing to remember him as such, at least until I get the opportunity to read and reread, he may well deserve the full-length portrait and then some that Bailey gives him, but the danger of writing such a book about a man famous for the precision and brevity of even his most extended prose, seems obvious to me.

I wonder now if I ought not to at least buy the first volume, of the reissued stories, before I commit to going on with Bailey's book. Surely reading a dozen, classic stories would better serve Cheever's memory, than necessarily finishing his latest, and largest biography to date? (But then, I wouldn't be thinking of doing even that had Cheever not finally been canonized in The Library of America, so perhaps the reissue was all I needed to get me reading. Maybe I've taken hold of the wrong book first. Seems I might be qualified to write for The New York Times Book Review after all. Who knew?)

Daily Dose

From Between Meals, by A, J. Liebling


"A popular dessert named for the star, the Lillian Russell, was a half cantaloupe holding a pint and three quarters of ice cream. If an actress had a dish named after her now, the recipe would be four phenobarbital tablets and a jigger of Metrecal."

from Paris the First

Friday, March 27, 2009

An Irresistable Force at Work on a Moveable Body

If I ever doubt the affection of my coworkers, I am reminded when my cupidity becomes so embarrassing that even work-husband, J., is moved to gently ask, as he was today, "Now really, do you need to buy those books today?" He cares, you know, he really does. I went upstairs just to check and see if the second volume of A. J. Liebling in The Library of America, promised for months and inexplicably delayed, had indeed finally arrived. It had. The stack I brought down from the hardcover classics area though included not just the Liebling, but three other new volumes in the series as well. Each new volume cost thirty five or forty dollars, depending, I suppose on size. I can afford, at the moment, none of them. J. was quite right to intervene.

The first volume of Liebling, published last year, was of his war correspondence. I've read in it since and it is all good, some of it quite moving in a tough minded way. But had the author been anyone else, or had the book been published somewhere other than in The Library of America, I don't know that I would have felt obliged to own it. I love Liebling, but the Liebling I love is in this second volume. This is Liebling the gourmand, the boxing enthusiast, the New York and Paris boulevardier. He is not wholly absent from the first book, but, I suspect, he is present entire in the second. If I've already read nearly everything in this second volume, it won't much matter as I know I will dearly love having it all in one handsome, compact book.

Lafcadio Hearn is not a writer I've ever read, with the exception of a few ghost stories and what I remember as his translations of some Japanese classics. When I picked up this new collection in the series, I hadn't even any idea who the "Hearn" pictured on the cover might be. (His name seems to be one of those that requires both pieces to make a whole, like South Dakota.) The works listed are none of them, so far as I could tell without unsealing the book, set in Japan, suggesting a second volume forthcoming and an entirely new experience for me when I finally buy this book.

Finally, there are two, well-timed volumes of John Cheever, one of novels and the other of short stories. Again, none of this is unknown to me from earlier books. Presumably, all the stories herein are in my volume of the collected, plus the little book of posthumously published, uncollected stories, unauthorized as I remember by his estate and actively disliked if not resisted by his daughter, Susan Cheever, to whom I was gauche enough to mention the book, years ago, when she came into the store I was then working in, to sign as I remember, a novel of her own. The volume of novels I may have mostly read, though I could not swear to it as I have not read Cheever in years and may, suffering the unhappy effects on memory of proximity being mistaken for experience that is common to all booksellers, simply have sold them all rather than read them.

I want very much to read Cheever again. There is a major new biography. I want to read that, in fact have already started it, or rather started in it, on more than one lunch-hour. There are few pleasures to equal reading a good critical biography with the writer's work conveniently collected and to hand.

What to do? For the time being, after much holding and calculating and whining, I have left the lot, neatly stacked at my desk. Dear J. has had a corrective influence yet again, as he so often has tried to do unsuccessfully in the past, and I will wait, if not for my birthday when I can present my husband with a total and beg a cheque for the lot, then at least until June when we have a scheduled employee shopping day, when our discount goes up a healthy ten percent, and I can justify, if not spending so much money, saving at least a little.

I wonder though if J., who sweetly suggested returning the books to the shelf until I could actually buy them, will be too much troubled by the sight of them there, in all their pretty potential, on the desk for the next three months. He can't seriously imagine, having found them all just today, that I could part with them now that they are mine in all but reality? Perhaps if I stuff them in my cubby with all the others I can't quite afford to actually buy...

John Hope Franklin, 1915 - 2009. A Life of Learning and Teaching

I hadn't much time with real professors during my brief course of study. I met one at a party, an elderly professor of Speech & Rhetoric in a department already called "Communications," and through him I transferred from the little theater school I was attending into a proper university, but, for various reasons, I lasted there a little less than a year. In that time, I was taught, after a fashion, largely by graduate students. A pitiable and dreary crew they were too. Otherwise, it was vast, drafty lecture halls, and a couple of classes I ought not to have taken but enjoyed. Undergraduate studies, I discovered, can be a rather hit or miss business, and in a large public university, with no one to guide me and no help offered, I drifted a bit, gravely disappointed not to find the collegial atmosphere of scholars and talkers I'd hoped for. When I fell in love and moved in with my husband, I left school behind me without a glance back.

Some of my teachers in college seemed amiable enough, some were even quite interesting, within the surprisingly narrow confines of their specialties, but I never had a professor such as John Hope Franklin. At the time of his death a few days ago, at age 94, the obituaries I read featured testimonials from any number of his students, many themselves now famous writers and academics, all of them describing the experience of having been not only taught, but inspired by the man. As I said, I was not so fortunate as to have had such a teacher in college, but I have learned from John Hope Franklin none the less.

As a writer, Franklin was not a terribly exciting stylist. Reading any of his histories, one is seldom tempted to quote, nor is it likely that reading any of his more famous books, like From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, first published in 1947, could be described as an inspiring or pleasurable experience. His is a deliberately reasonable, even dry voice. His facts and his conclusions are offered in much the same, sane, even-tempered way; in the kind of simple, supported declarations with which one might as easily write, or talk, about the most innocuous commonplaces of economics, say, or the agricultural labor, or migration. But his primary subject was race, specifically though not exclusively his own, and the history that shaped the African American experience. As should be obvious to anyone living in the United States, and from the one title sited above, that history was and is as fraught with tragedy, violence, bondage and inhumanity as any in human history, moreover, it has the additional sting of irony, down to the present day. Perhaps the great historian felt, at least when writing, there was little need of rhetorical flourish, given his subject. His choice to write as straightforwardly as he did, it seems to me, not only served to make what he was writing about all the more compelling, but may also have kept the author's sanity. He seems never, on the page, to have raised his voice or felt the need to use any but due emphasis to support his, at one time, radical thesis, namely that no single part of the American experience is not, in some way tainted by race, and yet no history other than our own offers a more compelling argument for the continuing struggle to recognize and embrace our common humanity. If he was angry, and I don't doubt but that he must often have been as he wrote and taught and lived ninety-four years as a black man in America, he made considerable use of his emotion, without ever being betrayed by it into exaggeration or hyperbole of any kind. One might disagree with his conclusions, I suppose, but seldom with his scholarship. He was, in a substantial if quiet way, an activist as well as an historian, but as an historian, he trusted to the power of history, if not to correct injustice, then to record it accurately, seriously, and honestly, and in so doing, I suspect, he intended to bring about something like the reconciliation of Americans to their own history that he worked elsewhere to achieve between Americans, and of all people of whatever race. Much of what he did, he did for his own, reclaiming a past that had been systematically and deliberately distorted and destroyed, but he did it the way he did it, I believe, the better to persuade all of us of the rightness of what he undertook to restore not just to his people, but to all of us; our history, our commonality, humanity, decency, dignity, to show us our faults and our failures and our crimes, but without inferring an immutable evil from our rediscovered and recorded infamies.

John Hope Franklin taught me that history lives in and through the present, that it can never truly be erased, dismissed as inconvenient to myth, or allowed to be willfully forgotten, that it shapes us now, just as it shaped this country, and that to be ignorant of history is to be unconscious of the forces that make us every day either better or worse than we might otherwise be.

He also taught me that the very idea of "American Exceptionalism" is as dangerous to our history as it is has proven to be for any and all not included in, or deliberately excluded from, the compact it assumes between this nation and the higher purposes claimed in its founding and assumed to justify its every subsequent excess, forced acquisition, appropriation and assumption of dictate around the world.

"When we also learn that this country and the western world have no monopoly of goodness and truth or of skills and scholarship, we begin to appreciate the ingredients that are indispensable to making a better world. In a life of learning that is, perhaps, the greatest lesson of all."

I feel privileged to have had such a good, careful teacher as John Hope Franklin.

Daily Dose

From Race and History: Selected Essays 1938 - 1988, by John Hope Franklin


"If we would deal with our past in terms of the realities that existed at the time, it becomes necessary for us to deal with our early leaders in their own terms, namely, as frail, fallible human beings, and -- at times -- utterly indifferent to the great causes they claimed to serve."

From The Moral Legacy of the Founding Fathers

Thursday, March 26, 2009

No Furniture So Charming

Own enough of anything, and the one thing wanted won't be where it ought to be when it's wanted. I've mentioned here before the disorder in my library. Witness. I have managed somehow to put my Shakespeare away in such a way as to make getting at him if not impossible, shall we say, complicated?
I've recorded the PBS broadcast of Sir Ian McKellen'sKing Lear and planned to watch it, text in hand. Wanting particularly to have the text ready when Lear begins his "blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!" I was determined to have my own King Lear from the complete set of The Guild Shakespeare.I've seen, maybe, five Lears and even the best of these tends to get lost in the storm. Good to have the score, as it were, for such an aria. And there are other bits, Edgar's two-faced speeches, dialogue with Gloucester, with Edmund, the thread of which I tend to lose without a text to hand. Now the Guild set is far and
away the best Shakespeare I own for such purposes; stout little volumes of the individual plays, at five by seven, small enough to carry around, even to a theater, but printed in a big enough type to be read in even dim light. Good notes too.

On my desk, with other books kept for quick reference, I keep a handsome, one-volume, Oxford of The Complete Works. It's the best edition in one volume I've ever owned; heavy but not impossible, well made, printed in two columns, but not impossible in a good light. But to sit with the thing in my lap and watch television? It would be like relaxing with five pound sack of flour on one's knee.

No. It's the Guild, or it's nothing. So, where is the damned thing? I don't have a proper shelf for the set, so they're kept in as neat and straight a stack as possible in the dark corner. There was an order to the stacking when it was done, but that happened quite some time ago. And since then... Most recently, reading Chaucer's Troilus & Criseyde, I found I was curious to have a go at Shakespeare's Troilus & Cressida. Simple enough sort of whim for an idle, rather than an ideal reader of such things. You may guess where
that neglected product of Shakespeare's pen lived in the stack. Now, digging for Lear, I had to displace the lot, piling them out onto the crowded floor, only to find the one play not present...

I'd forgot getting a similar urge to read the play, some months back, when the Peter Brooks/Paul Scofield version ran on Turner Classic Movies.

The question tonight then remains, where the hell did I put the damned book when I was done with it the last time? I know this is of no particular moment to anyone but me, and some clever dick is likely to point out that one does work in a bookstore still, with multiple editions of the play to be borrowed or bought inexpensively, yes? Well, I don't want those books, or the book on my desk, I want the other one. I planned the evening with the other one in mind. True, at this point I'll have to wait until Saturday night to watch the play anyway, (and yes, that will constitute for me an exciting Saturday,) but none of that matters. I want the book I want. Excuse me if I can't think of anything else for the next few minutes, hours or days, depending on just how long it takes me to tear the joint apart until I find it. Ah, books do furnish a room, don't they? (Stop looking at me that way, Ian.)

Daily Dose

From Extemporary Essays, by Maurice Hewlett


"Twenty-two acknowledged Concubines, and a library of 62,000 volumes attested the variety of his inclinations: and from the productions which he left behind him it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation."

From The Limits of the Readable

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It Is Only Necessary to Make the Thing Difficult to Attain

Today at the bookstore, passing the General Merchandise counter, I heard an enchanting imp, perhaps all of five, her hair in loose curls, her eyes wide with outrage, gasp in disbelief when told to put a string of candy back. "But this one looks particularly good!" was her surprisingly articulate and compelling argument. I did not stay to witness her failure to persuade her no doubt implacable parent. My sympathies were all with the precious, greedy child. A man on his way to have a cigarette understands the particular appeal of an unhealthy indulgence.

To forbid is to render irresistible, to elevate, even the most commonplace of sins to a murderous, ravishing enchantment. To forbid arbitrarily not a sin, but an appetite, provides better proof of "an angry and jealous god" than could ever be undone by the gentlest guitar-mass or the sexiest Youth Minister holding one's hand in circle-prayer. God is Love? No. Just plain mean, it seems, is what He was, and no Commandment more footling came down from Sinai than the prohibition against covetousness. To not want?! Even if so inhuman an injunction were possible, who would it profit but the god who has everything, who wants only to give without being asked? Awful old misery, was God. Like an aunt with a candy dish only meant for decoration. Better without.

But even in a world without the full list of sins from Sinai, there are still such universals as paying a fair price for goods received. (I have been in retail so long, it seems, that even my theology, such as it is, can be reduced to good business practice.) Perhaps the ugliest instance of covetousness I've seen regularly in the business of used books is the sharp deal. I've not only witnessed dealers pay economically and price dear, I've heard true chicanery bragged about in indecorous detail; the pigeon described, the treasure coming invariably up from the bottom of an otherwise undistinguished lot, the title withheld in the telling 'til nearly the end of the tale, the lucky dealer's sweated patter and assumed nonchalance reenacted down to miming the slip between lesser books of the only one wanted, the seller paid pennies... and then the title triumphantly revealed at last, followed quick by the astonishing (usually exaggerated) price got for the thing online or from some "special" client. Such duplicity, it seems, is common in the trade, or was at least among some of the otherwise reputable enough rag-and-bone-men I met at the lower end of the business. That antiquarians, or those sometimes so called, tell each other similar tales when privately gathered strikes me as no less likely, though I make the assumption only as a frequently disgruntled customer, shopping beyond my pay, never having moved in such rarefied company much myself.

The sin then, so far as I can see, is not in the wanting, but in why and the getting. The deal I've described has nothing to do with books. Real greed would find a better, more regular way, by means of an MBA, I should think, and a place at Morgan Chase. No, what such dishonest dealers do is gamble; on the ignorance of sellers, on unstable quotes from websites, with their own reputations and livelihoods. For such dirty practitioners of the slight, a book's contents, or beauty or worth, are irrelevant, even it's condition secondary to it's market value. I've known book dealers as ignorant and unlettered as panhandlers, no better than car dealers, book dealers who never read a book, or who read nothing but pulp to please themselves, but whose experience in the trade has taught them to spot, if not quality, rarity. Buy and sell used books long enough, and any ape can learn how to pluck a first edition from a bin, find gold in dumpster, or recognize a fine binding and a peerless name without ever reading more than a title-page. Such sorry, soulless grubbers, when swapping tall tales, covet each other suckers, not each other's books.

One outside the business would never know this, of course, unless one returned to see the book sold for a dollar listed for thousands. It's happened. But the once-rooked, while twice shy from experience, can still be got 'round by the truly slick. There are disreputable dealers -- known to the trade, even warned against -- who somehow oil and sooth, and go on from swindle to swindle. As Ben Franklin said, "Covetousness is ever attended with solicitude and anxiety," though the opportunities are as rare as the truly rare books, and I should think the thrills for such people come so infrequently, they must sooner or later give up the more usual business of book trading.

And even the most honest dealer, in the rush to conclude a buy, makes mistakes and discovers too late, the seller gone, that a book was worth considerably more than what was paid. A good bookman will hope to see this seller again, will even pursue them if the means are available, to pay the difference owed. It's simply good practice. One wants always to buy more, to be brought good or better books. Being honest is the only way to bring honest sellers in.

But wanting great books, as I said, is no sin, and there's nothing of brimstone in the good smell of rare volumes, no heat but from hands in the feel of fine leather, no guilty glint in fine gilding. In my time buying books, I've handled so many glorious things, books so beautifully made I'm glad of the privilege of seeing them and flattered to be offered. Whole private collections of treasure have come my way through the years, and have been regularly, reluctantly sent on their way to other, better financed, better situated or better qualified dealers. Doesn't mean, for the brief time I held them, I did not covet. Oh, but I have! Such books though are not what I deal in. Better I take what I know I can sell, what I might hope to turn over in the time that I have. The average book dealer sits on at least a few books worth more than the whole of the rest of his stock, but it's the rest of his stock that pays for that prerogative, and no dealer's above selling even the greatest find, should the rent come due before enough paperback romances have been moved in a month.

There are, in this city, some excellent, honest and learned antiquarians, real masters and mistresses of their trade, who appreciate the finest and rarest, who have the good taste and the customers and the patience to wait for them. I envy them their equipoise, and covet their stock, but I haven't their experience, training or skill, and may never should I spend a very long life in used books, any more than I would want or be likely to ever acquire the necessary brass balls and bad character to tell outrageous stories about taking the signed Hemingway from some innocent widow.

But why elevate my humble trade to such psychomachia? All I'm really describing is how easy it is to be virtuous when one can't afford real sin, either spiritually or financially. If my sins are little ones, if all I can manage is a bit of honest coveting, I've nobody to blame but the God, or likelier, the biology and parents that made me. Too late now to regret the limits of either my education or my criminality.

The next gorgeous, grand book to come across the buying desk will be passed on with the usual explanation, though greeted as always, I do not doubt, with my usual wide-eyed, covetous wonder, my coworkers, all equally poor, called over to admire, before it's let reluctantly go.

"But this one looks particularly good!"

Amen, little sister, amen.

Daily Dose

From The Best American Poetry 2006, guest editor Billy Collins


"Fundamentalists think it apparent
That the Bible is strictly inerrant.
When one asks, once again,
'Well, so who married Cain?'
They claim Yahweh was, singly, her parent."

From Sects from A to Z, by R. S. Gwynn

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

And Now, Aloud

"I don't read poetry."

I've heard that before, from booksellers even, even on the committee of booksellers I joined last year to, among other things, award a prize in poetry, if we wished (we were not obliged to do so.) I understand. I do. If one's education was no better than mine, and mine now has at least the charm of some antiquity, poetry was taught, if taught at all, badly. In elementary school we memorized simple rhymes to help us spell, tie our shoes, remember rules of grammar and good conduct. Later, we might have learned a little poem here or there, to recite. Civic minded youngsters, lacking better entertainments then, in a town with one movie house, three channels of TV and two radio stations, joined The Grange, as I did, or The Scouts or some such institutional recreation, and might, when called on to entertain the elders, come the Fourth of July, stand and let fly with a trebled toot of John Greenleaf Whittier or Emma Lazarus, but even in my day, such occasions were becoming rare. Later still, in junior high and high school, the real damage was done. When a poem happened in our texts, there was usually a groan, not at the poem, or poetry, of which we knew next to nothing, but in anticipation of the "teaching" of it. No lyric ever sung, no light or heavy matter, no joke or rhyme ever made, survived the dunning monotony of dull analysis; graphing "schemes," detailing "themes,"the picking to bits of a beautiful living thing into so many scraps of dead gut, dry bone and snapped sinew. Woe to the poet still living who consents to be anthologized in a literature text. Woe likewise to the shade so memorialized. You will be taught. Is it any wonder then that "This Is Just to Say" has lost more readers for William Carlos Williams by being in a textbook than he might ever have hoped to gain had he lived to write as well for another hundred years? How much "mud-luscious" and "puddle-wonderful" poetry by Ezra Pound can survive the average Education Major's "classroom discussion" of the Imagist Movement?

The average, American, English teacher, having had no better education than my own, only more of it, is no better qualified to "teach" a poem than the average gym teacher is to conduct a ballet class. Just as gym and ballet both move bodies but to different ends, namely exercise and art, the two activities, teaching English and reading poetry, share some vocabulary and some ancestral urge to say, but in my experience, there the resemblance largely ends.

And that's a pity, because generations now have lost the knack of reading aloud and reading aloud is how poetry is best learned. How language comes to us; in sound and inflection and tone and gesture and expression and rhythm and rhyme, is what poetry is made of. Poetry, literature, is our language shaped by skillful minds, made better by practice, tempered, expanded, refined, transformed, exploded, bent, made beautiful by craft, made art. That's it. If the craft can be taught, then let those inclined to learn it, study, but one does not need to teach a child composition, or even a scale on the piano before he hears or sings a song, listens to a symphony or owns an ipod.

Who, in this, our thunderously musical age, would even think to require music theory as a prerequisite for lullabies?

Many of my fellow committee members, as traumatized as I by the good Masters & Doctors of Education, as disinclined as I once was to put a poem in their mouths for pleasure, having only had them given in school as punishments or pills, balked at reading poetry. But to read a poem aloud is to remember how good words can taste. Declamation is reclamation! One needs no degree to read aloud Leigh Hunt. Try it. Try this, read this poem this way: take a breath before the title and then let it all out after. Take another, then read the lines and leave a beat at the end of each. Emphasize the verbs, and follow the punctuation.


Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping up from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in;
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.

Now do it again, out loud.

The American poet, Robert Pinsky, has a new anthology, in which this poem appears, on page 371. The title is Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud. It is published in hardcover for $29.95, by W. W. Norton and includes a CD of poems being read aloud. The selection is wide and good, the introductions sometimes more technical than may be good for his purpose, but as the editor himself says, "Analysis can refine and enrich understanding of the feeling and the ideas, but the fact of the actual words is primary and essential: you can hear it."

And how else or better to "hear it" then to say it, out loud?

Do try. If one is shy, one might slip behind a locked door, in an empty house, or read aloud to the cat -- though be prepared for the cat's indifference. But do it. Open this book to any brief poem, any title that takes your fancy. Read the thing once, but without too much analysis, just to let the words go by, to find the commas and the verbs, and then, take a breath...

and say the poem.

One doesn't need to know what a "rondeau" is to know the pleasure in Jenny's kiss. Trust me. Better, trust the poet. Trust the words, their ours. Trust the voice, say the poem.

Daily Dose

From Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud, edited by Robert Pinsky


"This may be the most basic of poetic categories: every poem, by definition, says here is an occasion worth making a poem about."

From the introduction to Odes, Complaints, and Celebrations

Monday, March 23, 2009


By now, anyone interested in the latest buzzing from the the book world has already read Gideon Lewis-Kraus' article "The Last Book Party: Publishing Drinks to Life After Death", in the March edition of Harper's Magazine. In it the author attends the Frankfurt Book Fair, where he eats, drinks and makes mildly merry with the agents and publishers, the movers & shakers of the industry. The portrait is not flattering, for the most part; many of the more important people the author encounters might as well be, in fact often are these days, little different from any other corporate plutocrats. As his introduction makes clear, publishing is now largely a division of larger entertainment concerns, vast corporate entities, run by the generic "barbarians" of the American MBA class, rather than the moneyed gentlemen of an earlier era, who turned "their parents' financial capital into cultural capital," and were "happy to make a profit of 3 to 5 percent." (Think Alfred A. Knopf for the latter. None among the former, quite rightly, will ever have so memorable a name.)

In all of this, there is little that is new or unknown, even to one so far down the ranks as me. The rise of the American bookstore chains, the dominance of the "superstore," happened at exactly the same time, and in much the same way, born of much the same business philosophy: bigger is better. Bigger publishers begat bigger advances, begat bigger promotion, begat bigger sales -- except when they didn't. Bigger bookstores begat better terms, begat bigger margins, begat constant expansion, begat record profits -- until Jeff Bezos. The corporate model may be unsustainable, books incapable of producing the demanded profits, publishing the least likely division of entertainment to produce regular blockbusters. Superstores, however large, comprehensive and exponentially multiplied, may ultimately prove an untenable expense in an online environment.

All such speculation is well beyond my pay-grade, and, as twenty some odd years in Independent Bookstores have taught me, about as exact a speculative undertaking as analysing the state of the Soviet Union by studying the line up of doddering monsters on the Kremlin wall each May Day. How many faux bestsellers have been said to herald the end of the super-literary-agent? How many bad seasons have been shown to predict the coming bust up of the mega-publishers? How many dips in their stock price have failed to produce the fall of Barnes & Noble? How many times has Amazon.com been said to have exhausted the patience of it's investors?

Always, next year in Jerusalem.

Now, with the global economy undone by its own devilish inventions, and greed superficially unpopular again, I know some independent booksellers will again spend their nights studying corporate financials, davening over PW, looking for clues, praying for relief, cursing fate with a renewed spirit. My own mood turns rueful at the news that a major publisher will lay-off a record number of employees one day, and announce an obscene advance for a cable-show-comedian's ghosted memoirs the next, but I don't presume to read much into such news. All auguries are inconclusive, all trends subject to abrupt change, all business models eventually inexact and unprofitable.

Fidel is still alive. The Kremlin is repopulated by a new generation of kleptocrats. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was pardoned. We're still in Iraq. The AIG bonuses, for the moment, are banked, though presumably now off-shore.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus does find much to be admired in smaller, independent publishers, many of them born of the very technological innovations that so many in the book business are otherwise so late to embrace. Likewise, even after the sad fall of so grand an institution as Stacey's Bookstore, in San Francisco, there are still booksellers opening shops here and there, nowadays, often as not, on ground abandoned by the superstores as unprofitable.

I am not so much an optimist as to hope to see the "buy local" movement, or earnest gatherings on Facebook, save the Independents. I am neither such a zealot as to waste another candle reading over The Wall Street Journal, (that vile, propagandist rag of the oligarchy,) prayerful for the decline of a point. I want no more moaning. I refuse to watch the skies.
I do not care to ever read another profile of the decline of publishing, or the passing away of the book. I have no more patience with such reading of entrails and smoke.

Tomorrow, I will go back to work in the bookstore. I will do my best. I will read, recommend, buy and sell books.

Fates, do your worst. Soothsayers be damned.

Daily Dose

From Queen Victoria, by Lytton Strachey


"In literature her interests were more restricted. She was devoted to Lord Tennyson; and as the Prince Consort had admired George Eliot, she perused Middlemarch: she was disappointed."

From Chapter Nine, Old Age

Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Beneath This Roof at Midnight" --Stacey's Bookstore 1923 - 2009

It's when the fixtures come out, after the stock has been sold off or returned, after the final sale's been rung up, the final customer gone, the doors locked, when the paper is up on the windows, as if to hide the shame of the thing, that a bookstore is not a bookstore anymore. Walking what had been the aisles but have ceased to be because the bookcases are gathered, for convenience, in the center of the room, so not aisles now, but the periphery, the carpet covered in plastic to catch the sawdust and loose screws, it's then one sees the shape of the space as it must have been new, before any use was made of it, when occupancy was still just anticipated, before any purpose was made clear. The sound is empty. Alone, at night, in such a place, however busy one might be still, however much there might still be to do before the movers come to haul out the cash registers, the desks, the bookcases, the bones, one walks uncomfortably, as on a grave. Playing music seems rude, even irreligious, yet music makes the task less lonely, so long as it's cheerful, so long as it's loud, but when it's turned off, even if just before the lights are, every step echoes, every cough, brought on by the dust, hits a bare wall.

SFGate, online home of The San Francisco Chronicle, on Wednesday, had an article and a short video commemorating the closing of Stacey's Bookstore on Tuesday, after eighty five years in operation in San Francisco, after fifty years on Market Street at the same location. I was glad to see notice taken, even online.

I remember closing another Stacey's, a smaller store of no such history, a branch location of no great size, on Sacramento Street. From the day I took the promotion to manage that store, it was already expected to close. It had been opened with only the thought that it could keep the bookstore's name alive if the lease was lost on the main store. When that didn't happen, the little store became redundant, but had to be kept until its own lease ended or could be got out from under. Two or three times at least, I was warned the Sacramento Street store would be closing, before at last it did. Each time I took the threat seriously, and wasn't wrong to do so, at least that last time. Staff then, thankfully, could be sent back to the other store, no one faced unemployment then. A place was made, even for me again. The books then could be returned to publishers for credit to be used, most of them, the fixtures stored. The loss then was discreet, the end a small thing when it came. It did not feel any less a loss though, any less a failure, at least to me.

The closing had been announced, the date set. One by one the remaining clerks went their way, some before we'd even stopped ordering books, until there were just a couple of us to run the sale, see to the dissolution, turn off the lights. I remember that last month of operation, when everyone knew. Customers, friends I'd made there, came in to sympathize, buy a last book, take me to lunch, then had the good grace to stay well away as the closing came near. Signs went up announcing discounts and the most common question became not "Are you closing?" or "When?" but "When will the discount go to fifty percent? Seventy five?" When that happened, my coworkers sometimes took me from the cash register, apologizing to the customers, telling them they would be assisted in a moment, by someone other than me. I must have been a sight. I was so angry at myself for having failed, so ashamed at what I saw as an opportunity lost. I was angry too to see the cupidity in all those well dressed stock-traders, those newly minted, moneyed customers, feigning fellow-feeling as they inquired after deeper discounts, better bargains, free boxes to haul away what they'd never thought to buy when it might have meant the difference between keeping the business and losing it.

The best time in that little Stacey's had been the last Christmas before the Stock Market fell. One Holiday Season, when the city seemed rich, before the asinine and cruel theology of Reaganomics collapsed into godless panic, the store was a ringing success. Drunken traders, "stock jobbers," corporate raiders, bankers -- suits -- came in late by the dozens (they traveled in packs when the exchange closed for the day, drank their uproarious dinner in yuppie cafes, then remembered the wife's cute interest in literature, a book for the kid, grandma's need of a new gardening manual.) We recommended hardcovers then, without an eye being batted, art books so large and expensive, once bought and wrapped, as to probably be forgotten in cabs, remembered only by the American Express statements that would come come January. There seemed to be no end to what might be spent, even on books. But of course there was an end to it: Black Monday, the following year, in October, 1987, before Christ's Birthday shopping had even had the chance to get started. That Christmas, unlike the one before, the Masters of the Universe didn't seem to drink, or if they did, they drank alone. They all shopped soberly enough, that much I know.

Standing alone, the last night before the keys were handed back to the landlord, I remember thinking, "This is what it means to be alone." Who remembers that little store now but me? Who noticed the change, passing on Sacramento Street, when it became yet another ubiquitous coffee bar? Who else thought of all the good booksellers that passed through that place, of all the good books and bad that were sold there, of the conversations had, the friendships begun... who else missed my Christmas windows from 1986?

In that store we survived an earthquake, defiantly sold The Satanic Verses, never taking it out of the window, had a grand party to launch Brian Bouldrey's first novel, hosted lunch-time readings. In that store I trained a dozen new booksellers, had to fire someone I'd hired out of pity, when it became clear he could not read, made caricatures of authors and hung them on the walls and had the authors themselves stop by to comment, (I remember Amy Tan squinting up at my drawing of her and saying, "Are my eyes really that small?") In that store I learned how order backlist books, how to do simple bookkeeping, smoked at my desk!

Now Stacey's is gone all together. The great, grand place on Market Street for fifty years is no more real than the little shop on Sacramento. I didn't envy this week the managers and booksellers that were left to sell off book-stands and ring up the last book. I remember something of what that feels like. I wish them all well.

Daily Dose

From Eminent Victorians, by Lytton Strachey


"The history of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian - ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Better Part of Biography

Reading Adam Nicolson's new book, Quarrel With the King: The Story of an English Family on the High Road to Civil War, I had the unexpected pleasure of discovering a wonderful portrait of a favorite. I'm partial to favorites, royal. James the 1st of England was, for the most part, about as bad a character as was ever produced by a very spotty family. It is hard to find much in him that wasn't reprehensible, but I can't help being tickled at the way the old boy had with the boys, and how many. James Stuart had favorites as few had before or after him; promotions, fortunes, titles and lands, pearls, gems, suites and kisses rained down on each lucky, comely lad in turn, including, as it turns out, an Earl or two from the clan storied in Nicolson's book. There is a rather fabulous portrait, included in the photo-insert, of Philip Herbert, made Earl of Montgomery not long after, as Nicolson says "the royal eyes alighted on him." Philip is described, rather charitably, as having been "less complex" than his more accomplished older brother William, the Earl of Pembroke, herein described in no uncertain terms as no less than Shakespeare's "Mr. W. H.," but the kid brother did okay for himself, and looking at the painting of this pretty peacock, one understands the king's interest. He looks good. His elaborate costume and elongated figure can't distract from his obvious charms. Old King Goat had good taste.

I've always enjoyed the stories of favorites and mistresses, secret marriages, bastards made dukes, boyfriends made noble. One of the few advantages of the monarchical system, at least until the advent of constitutions and nosy parliamentary inquiries, would seem to have been in the chance for beauties to work their way up on their backs, without undue embarrassment to, indeed to the great enrichment of their friends and families. I've always enjoyed the history of successful gold-diggers.

Today, too lazy to roll out of bed and do better, I watched again John Madden's 1997 movie, Mrs. Brown, starring Judi Dench and Billy Connolly, as the widowed Queen Victoria and her all too faithful "ghillie" John Brown. Dench was, as ever, a wonder. With her rather small eyes and pert face, she looks nothing like the famously bug-eyed and beaky Queen, and yet she manages to make the formidable, even forbidding little reactionary come very much, and very sympathetically alive on screen. One not only pities Dench's Victoria, one actually comes to like her, and fairly quickly too, as soon, in fact, as Billy Connolly's delightful Brown arrives to enliven things with a wink and a bit of smart insolence. He looks quite fine in and briefly out of his kilt too, offering further visual evidence of John Brown's attractiveness, which seemed so to flummox the rest of the rest of the Queen's faithful.

The movie is a surprisingly moving, and chaste telling of the rise and fall of The Widow's favorite, and I've watched it more than once since it's release, each time with no less pleasure than the first. It is that good. It also proves a theory about the strange power of that odd little person, Queen Victoria, namely that whatever one may find distasteful in either monarchy or her personality, everyone writing about her sooner or later seems to love her. Biographers and cabinet ministers, historians and playwrights, for whatever reason, it seems even her harshest critics, on greater acquaintance, come to find her strangely sympathetic, not just pitiable for her unfortunate and neglected childhood, or the untimely end of her obsessively happy marriage and her long and wearisome widowhood, but genuinely likeable.

Lytton Strachey, perhaps the greatest and most famously acid historian of the great Victorians, on coming to Victoria herself, wrote another masterpiece, as unlike in it's way to his Eminent Victorians as day is to night. He may well have set out, in his Queen Victoria, as he had in his earlier book, to put all that was, by Bloomsbury's lights, awful in that earlier age, and as personified in the queen, down, for good and all. But, like so many before and since him, and even as he undid some of the stays in her stout myth, Strachey, by the end of his researches, and in the book he finally wrote, found a woman he truly respected, however violently he disapproved of her politics and piety, her temper and her empire, a woman in fact he seems to have ultimately found himself writing of as he did almost no one else: as a good example, in her weird way, as something of a heroine, at least in her own long and often unhappy life.

Every time I find myself, as I did today, distracted by a movie or television show featuring Victoria Regina, I take down Strachey's book and dip in here or there. My edition is wonderfully illustrated, with a brief introduction by Strachey's own great biographer, Michael Holroyd, and I inevitably read the whole last chapter, "The End," and stare at the last photos of the fat, sad little Queen in her pony-cart. Strachey closes his biography with a beautifully sentimental speculation, allowing the dying old lady to drift back, and back through her happy moments, ending where she began, in innocence. It is one of the most stunningly unlikely, and kindest, tributes in modern biography.

Strachey is, of course a favorite of mine, in a very different sense from that I was discussing when I started, and so, thanks to him, is old V. R. herself. Else, why would I watch her and read about her again and again, when there is so much I would rather and ought to do? Inexplicably, I find I like her. Go figure.