Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Unnecessarily Reluctantly Recommended Reading

I am a little taken aback at the number of perfectly nice people willing to tell me what I don't read. I will admit that as I've gotten older and fatter, so have the books I prefer to read. I do, however, read new books, of necessity, both for my job and for the committee on which I serve, and I am no more averse to having recommendations made me than I am to making. But my prejudices I freely, perhaps too freely, admit, and these, in common with my known preferences, tend to make people shy of putting their favorites in my way. Yet, when I ask a friend or a stranger for the name of the book before them, my curiosity is sincere, despite my evident reputation as a bully. On the rarer occasions when a recommendation is offered me, even by a friend, it is usually prefaced with an apology -- something I do myself, more often than not, and with better cause, as no one need like what I do -- it's just good manners. More frustratingly, lately, the books proffered me come with a warning, usually something like, "I love this book! But I know you won't care for it." Now that is no recommendation at all, is it?

People can be shy of telling others what to read. This is true, even or specially among booksellers, who, every working day, tell strangers what they ought to read or might like. Again, I have no illusions, when happily burbling, for instance, some anecdote recently gleaned from my wonderful new, two volume set of Johnsonian Miscellanies, that the polite smiles with which this sort of thing are usually met are anything other than what they seem. I am indulged, affectionately, by my weary audience, from loyalty and, I suspect, because it is easier, as it were, to simply accept the slobbery tennis ball dropped at one's feet and pat the beast. When given the slightest encouragement, though, like any friendly mongrel, I will want to play on, so indulging me in yet another Johnson story can lead to rather lengthy trials of patience. I know this. My friends and coworkers know this, as does my long suffering, and not bookish husband, and yet I am let off leash often enough that I believe I must be loved. There is no better explanation. But I understand that while my enthusiasms are kindly accommodated, they are rarely shared, so I tend to tell stories from my books rather than press the books themselves into the hands of those that love me best. I think this may be the best compromise I may expect. I don't know just how infrequently these often muddled excepts have actually led anyone to the good books from which I made them. I don't know that I want to know. Actually, I am sadly aware of the limits of my influence, and my admitted eccentricities of taste, and prefer, like most chatty old parties, to imagine myself, if no evangelist, at least no preacher either. I hope to amuse and hope I don't, too often, bore.

When a friend at the bookstore, with whom I was at the time less well acquainted, was compiling a list of recommendations of the best books he had never had the opportunity of reading, having been an English major, there were many of the usual classics, Moby Dick and the like, (a book, by the way I've never been able to finish,) and my contribution, from the top of my big pointed head, was a little known gem by Daisy Ashford, The Young Visiters, or, Mister Salteena's Plan. Written when the author was all of nine years old, and published, in 1919, with a preface by no less than J. M. Barrie, this wonderful book has my favorite opening line:

"Mr. Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking people to stay with him."

It would be hard to improve on that, but Miss Ashford's book, so far as I'm concerned, just gets better and better. “My life will be sour grapes and ashes without you,” for example, is a line I have quoted, too often, and is but one of too many wonderful lines from this book. “Bernard always had a few prayers in the hall and some whiskey afterwards as he was rather pious,” for example, or “I am partial to ladies if they are nice. I suppose it is my nature. I am not quite a gentleman but you would hardly notice it,” which, again, I once dropped into any conversation I could. So for me to recommend this little book as not only a favorite, but a model, I think, of the best kind of English prose, for which, after all, he had asked, seemed quite the right thing to do. I offered dear little Daisy to my young friend, himself a writer, as the perfect antidote to the kind of BFA/MLA seriousness to which his list seemed otherwise inclining. Made perfect sense to me. Don't know that it made any sense to my friend, when he read it, though I know he did in fact do so, bless 'im, or that I explained my enthusiasm well enough to justify setting Miss Ashford down in The Pantheon next to Mr. Melville, but such is the danger of asking others for their best books.

I have read with great pleasure so many books otherwise unknown to me, based on no better authority than just such whimsical council. I believe, for the most part, I am at least polite, and I will try almost anything, once -- save perhaps heroin or morally instructional children's books. (A very different thing from a book by an author who happened to be a child, let me point out.) So I am a little hurt when told I will not care for something I haven't read. This may be true or it may not. Try me. You don't know until you do.

Daily Dose

From The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquering the World, by Paul Collins


"Books bear a tangible presence alongside their ineffable quality of thought: they have a body and soul."

Monday, June 29, 2009

and if my house...

There was a homeless kid pissing in the alley behind the store this morning when I came out after working our inventory all night. I startled him, walking to my car. He startled me. He was filthy dirty, as my mother would say; pants stiff with grime, hair matted in fuzzy whiteboy dreads, little beard. He had big, dark Dondi eyes and in them was the only youth left in his face, though I'd guess he was all of twenty, twenty one.

I said, "Excuse me," as if I'd intruded, walking out of work, out the door of the bookstore and into the parking lot at one in the morning, to find some junkie pissing on the wall. I was startled, embarrassed, ashamed of him. I couldn't look at him with anything but disgust, not even pity.

All the kid said was "Peace," and then he stumbled off, his pants still undone.

I was so glad to be out of that bookstore this morning, so glad to be done. All the hard work of a bookstore's annual inventory is done before the books are counted. For the most part, working the event itself is just boring, a little hectic towards the end, but boring throughout, numbingly so. It is nothing like the work we do in a bookstore, most days. There is nothing in counting books that makes them any different from pencils or earrings or batteries. There's no real interaction with the books in counting then, or checking the work of the people hired to count them. We try to amuse ourselves, the staff that is required to be there the night of the inventory: we eat the free sandwiches and snacks, and drink the soda from the open soda machine with a sign on it, this one night, saying "free!" and we joke amongst ourselves, and even a little with the counters, though they're actually quite busy all night. We even sang a song for no good reason, at one point, a couple of us. But really, it's work, just not our work, or rather, the least of what we could possibly be doing with the books in a bookstore. There isn't even really time to read anything, even when it's slow. But doing inventory is exhausting.

I'm thinking this morning about the only real poverty I witnessed as a kid, and how different it was, both in it's affect and its impact, to the poverty I see around me every day in a fairly large city. I grew up somewhere between a small town and nowhere special. Both my parents worked. I grew up in the house my father still owns, was never hungry, never knew real want for anything needed. My father had been poor, as were most people when he was a boy during the Great Depression. That experience shaped him, as it did my mother and their whole generation. Knowing what it was to be poor, my parents did their best to see that their children never knew that fearful experience. Both my parents were, of necessity, honest with their children about money and its periodic tightness, but of real poverty I knew little or nothing. Of charity, I saw much. Poor I never was, then, not really. When I went to college, briefly, which neither of my parents had been able to do, I did do without many things rather than ask for more money than I'd already been given, ashamed to admit that the expense was greater than I had assumed or than my parents could ever have anticipated. But this was nothing but pride. I met and moved in with my good husband when I was all of twenty. That ended college for me, more to the regret of persons other than myself, than to me. That necessitated my getting and keeping a job, as I have done ever since, secure in the knowledge that mine was to be a second income in our household. Still is, even with dear A. in retirement. I have lived, in other words, a rather charmed life.

Not everyone with whom I grew up was so lucky. I knew people who did not have money, but I did not know people who did not eat. I knew people who lived in other people's houses, or in houses so ramshackle as to almost defy occupancy, but I did not know anyone we would have considered homeless, even if the term had been current at the time. I went to school with children ashamed at the state of their clothes, though not for want of washing or repair, and I do not remember any child's dress, inadequate to either modesty or the season, who did not find someone willing, quietly, to redress the deficiency.

What I do remember now, looking back with adult eyes, is that distress was more a matter for discretion, though no less a recognized fact, for all that. Comment was seldom passed but in private about the old women I knew who lived in inadequately heated houses, mended their clothes past the point of repair and who may have been grateful for every damaged tin or day old loaf they found in the back of the grocery. My father took such women wood, for their stoves. My mother and grandmothers never visited them with empty hands. As a child, I accepted without thought that my father's elderly friend Ernie lived in an old camper rather than a house like ours, or that so many people still canned their own produce, repaired their own vehicles or walked to their jobs. It never occurred to me, that I can remember, to question why so many people I knew then lived, as my grandmothers would both have said, "simply." People just did, mostly "out in the country," Which meant even further from town than we were. But I don't know that anyone did without unless they would not be helped, or died alone that didn't choose to.

When my father's plant was on strike once for a long time, and maybe a few times besides, we used Food Stamps at the grocery. My mother, I remember, went to the one cashier at the A&P that she did not know well. We ate "government cheese," and venison from the deer my dad was lucky enough to get that season. Neither of my parents ever "carried a note," which is how we called debt where I grew up, for anything other than a car or a mortgage until I went to college, so far as I know. Yet my parents found what was needed to raise a child not their own. They were never thanked for this. That has hurt them, but not so much that they regret what they did. My sister does the same for a playfellow of her sons, now already but grown into a man, and expects no more thanks for it than my parents did.

Growing up, I knew plenty of people with drug and or alcohol problems; women who had the beer distributor delivering once and twice a week -- we were a dry county back then -- men who drank up their paychecks, their families, their homes. Among the friends of my brother and sister, and among my own friends, I could count on one hand the number that never got high, the parties that didn't include grain alcohol mixed with fruit cocktail and Koolaid. Every yearbook, from our little high school, had a "dedication page," memorializing the kids that wrapped their trucks around phone-poles, or fell in the river at a party and weren't missed in time. When people could do nothing else, they all went to the funerals.

My brother has known violent, unhappy men, men so troubled by their memories or their dreams as to feel themselves unsafe at night, alone with their thoughts. They've slept in his house when they weren't safe in their own.

All of that there is that is ugly is just as ugly there as the things I've seen in a city, here or elsewhere. The poverty and desperation are just as real, the violence just as unpredictable, the effect the same. So what is different here, now?

Why does that little junkie in the alley break my heart, blessing me and then stumbling away with his filthy pants still open?

Maybe I am just tired. It was a long night. I don't know. Maybe I'm older now, old enough to be that kid's father, though there's not the slightest possibility of that.

There was something sadder about watching that boy go off alone, without even shoes or a shirt, than anything I suppose I've ever seen, so maybe I'm just a little ashamed, having just watched him go, not having said so much as a kind word to him.

What had I done, but catch him somewhere he ought perhaps not to have been, doing something he meant no harm by? Where else had he? I might have said something to him, wished him a goodnight at least, I suppose. Instead I was embarrassed, disapproving, silent. He had no reason to say to me what he did. But what else had he? He had that, at least, he had that word, whether he meant anything by it or not. The poverty I saw as a child, the violence, addiction, deprivation, was dealt with all in whispers, behind hand, quietly. It was not quite so dirty or naked, but it was as real, and it was addressed, one way and another. At least this boy still has a voice; broken, ugly, misdirected, but not unkind. He has that. There was no other dignity in him, but there was that. He wished me peace. And he got nothing from me, after all, but then, he didn't ask for a damned thing, and I didn't offer. I did what I've learned to do, I looked away.

"And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you."

I return his wish to him now. Too late perhaps, but I sincerely do. Peace. I hope he may find some, yet. I do. What else can I do now?

Forgive me. I don't know why I'm writing this. When I'm tired, I fall back on old phrases, and I'm tired this morning, as tired I think as I have ever been.

Daily Dose

From Six Memos for the Next Millennium, by Italo Calvino


"My work as a writer has from the beginning aimed at tracing the lightening flashes of the mental circuits that capture and link points distant from each other in space and time."

From Quickness

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Through the Looking Glass Again

Doing a bookstore's inventory is, shall we say? a collaborative process. I hate that. It requires, once a year, that strangers come into the very places where we work every day and that they find there an order perhaps not all together natural to the bookseller. We are an organized business; books are bought, priced, tagged, sorted, ordered on the shelf, sold, as much by recommendation as review, and that last means being able to find not just the book asked for, but also the book unanticipated. But booksellers are not, in my experience, tidy beings. Our pleasure in print makes pack-rats of us all, to begin with. We do so like paper, one would think we eat it, the way it is stored up even after it's use is done: catalogues, reviews, reports, stray plates and pages, broken bindings, bits, pieces, scrap. True, we use the scrap. We are great ones for note taking and lists. We are mad for reference, and anything once jotted down may be necessary to someone thereafter. Even in the age of interior store blogs, we leave notes taped everywhere; telling this one she's had a call from her customer, and those that a book has been on NPR and ought to be reordered, explaining new procedures at the cash registers, or a correction in the calendar of events. It is lunatic, the continued reliance of booksellers on scribbling. I don't know that it can be helped, no matter the technological innovations, extraordinary in just my time in bookselling, meant to do away with all this business of memos and notes and books of reference. We do so like a note. We dote on records, ledgers and the like. (They're almost like books, don't you see?) And then there are all the book themselves that we ought not still to have about the place come inventory taking; the publishers' returns we've put off too late, the reader's copies we can't ethically sell, the damaged and the shopworn and the unsalable. What to do with all that? This is to say nothing of the personal effects, the mugs and water bottles, the sweaters and library books (hateful things,) the book reviews and clippings shared out at the information desk, the pens, and pencils and... stuff. So the thought of anyone not sympathetic to our little disorders, our packed cubbies and stuffed desks, coming in to, potentially, count our paperclips and question the value of our accumulations, causes a kind of annual panic.

Books that ought to have been gone, returned long since, marked down, donated, destroyed like so many lamed and sickly pets, are culled not methodically or systematically, in a business-like way that would suggest planning and careful maintenance, but at a rush; more slum-clearance for fear of typhus than logical hygiene. Our inventory at the bookstore where I work, for instance, comes every year at the end of June. This has not varied in the memory of a living soul. And yet, we meet it every year, come April, with all the shocked horror of unlettered peasants catching the first scent of an unexpected plague in the gossiping breeze. Carts full of last minute "pulls," i.e. books unreviewed on the shelves for months, overdue for removal, suddenly back up in the returns area, books too old to return, or used books long ago paid for but unsold and unnoticed, suddenly appear heaped at the desk to be "clearanced," marked-down, made to go away.

Desk drawers are checked for salable goods. The unlikely to be purchased piles of squirrelled away remainders and forgotten bargain books, books that have survived the last day of increased employee shopping discounts unnoticed, reappear mysteriously on the bargain books tables, in ones and twos, long after the displays of these books have sold away otherwise to nothing.

For us at the Used Books Desk, always unhappy to see any used book come back to us for any reason other than a customer selling it back for credit, the return of so many unsold books every June, when we are already madly scrambling to enter everything newly purchased before the deadline, constitutes the worst possible news at the worst possible moment. We are surprised, every time.

All of this frenzied organization, elimination, reduction and adjustment is, in it's way, ridiculous. In the first place, new messes will be quickly made, come the first of July, and new stock, new and used, is being purchased even as we panic about the old. True, in these troubled economic times, a more concerted effort has been made of late to tighten up the inventory in a very real way, but this does not preclude, evidently, the long established custom of talking about doing this sort of thing throughout the whole of the post-Christmas season and straight through Spring, and then actually addressing the issue only in April. So it ever was and shall be, I suppose. And in the second place, more absurdly, nothing is to be counted on the last Sunday in June that we do not ask to be counted! There is nothing in the bookstore but what we've put in it all the other months of the year! And yet, we seem to resent the very idea knowing any more than we have to of just what it is we may have done to ourselves, and this delayed and guilty admission -- that's there's no one to blame for our inventory but ourselves -- makes us all suddenly self conscious of waste, extravagance, and the embarrassingly messy way we tend to do business all the year 'round.

One would think, reading this, that I stand, like Jeremiah on a rock, shaking my weary locks at The Nation, calling down judgement and mercy, but the truth is, I'm madly trying to make my desk look presentable for visitors, enter all the books I ought not to have bought for the past month, and finally address at least some of the mark-down I ought to have done long since myself.

If only I could find my favorite pen in this damned drawer. And when, exactly, did I decide I needed this bargain book about Lewis Carroll & His Illustrators? That definitely needs to just go back on the table. When will I ever buy that book? Did you notice the lovely pictures, though? Look, here are Dodgson's original sketches, and then his "crocodile walking on his back" is transformed into the elegant crocodile of Harry Furniss. THe letters back and forth are fascinating...

I'm sorry, what was I talking about just now? Never mind. It can wait. Look at Sylvie!

Daily Dose

From Lamb and Hazlitt: Further Letters and Records Hitherto Unpublished, edited by William Carew Hazlitt


"I write more easily than I did. I hope for good. I have ventured to look at high things. I have toiled long & painfully to attain some stand of eminence. It were hard to be thrown back from mid-way of the steep to the lowest humiliation. I must conclude."

From a letter of William Hazlitt, to his father, Oct. 23rd. 1793

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Why I Wear an Apron

I wear an apron at work. I'm not required to, you understand. When I started at the bookstore where I now work, we wore lanyards that simply said "staff" or something like that. I honestly don't quite remember. There was some controversy when it was decided that one's actual name needed to be on the tag. Again, I may be misremembering this, but as I recall, a few folks felt the possibility of being too immediately identifiable as anything other than an employee was, well, dangerous. I have known retail employees who have been, if not stalked, certainly harassed by name, so I understood the hesitation. To my knowledge, no one has suffered anything as dire as all that since the name tags went on. When I worked stocking shelves and processing returns to publishers, it was not my name on the tag, but the damned lanyard that drove me crazy; catching on everything, whipping around my shoulder when I walked, trapping my name tag in every stack of books I carried... Generally, the only staff at this store who regularly wear aprons tend to work off the floor, in receiving, for example. But I've worn an apron at every store in which I've worked where they were provided. I like wearing an apron.

Doing used books, the chances of getting my clothes dirty are high. I am constantly amazed that otherwise perfectly nice, tidy people seem to have not the slightest embarrassment about bringing in bags all but rotted with damp, and still redolent of rotted groceries, boxes full of spiders and or those huge plastic storage bins -- always a very bad sign for the Used Books buying staff as good can almost never come from a bin -- crammed with the filthiest junk, and not in a fun way, either. For some, it seems, books are not objects worthy of the veneration some of us, most of us, feel. For some seemingly respectable people, their books deserve no more care than their kids smelly gym shoes, old newspapers or a defective garden-hose. A year or so ago, a woman brought in boxes of children's books and when the first box was opened, so many fleas leaped out as to seem a cloud of summer gnats. The strong odor of cat piss is not uncommon. Interestingly, the nice homeless fellow who regularly rescues books to sell us is invariably fastidious about the condition of the books he takes from dumpsters. It's obviously that he has carefully cleaned all of them before he tries to sell. By way of contrast, there are sellers who will ask for assistance getting the moldy, stained remains of dead books out of the trunks of their Mercedes. These last are the same people, by the way, who are always convinced they are being taken advantage of if offered a dollar for their one salable book. There are ways and there are ways to be besmirched by sellers. My apron can at least keep my shirt clean.

Wearing an apron also means always, or almost always, having a pen and pencil on me, having note-paper in the pocket, and a bone-folder for flattening the edge of a mylar book-cover. The big pockets on my apron allow me to never be without the means of pricing a book. Those pockets also mean I need never be without a convenient means of hiding the other half of my chocolate bar should someone pop up suddenly at the desk, as they do. (I don't think I've ever finished a candy bar without lint on it in all the years I've worked in bookstores.) My Irish great grandmother wore an apron every day of her adult life. According to family legend, when anyone came to the door, she dropped her pipe in the pocket. Don't know that she fooled anyone or that she didn't simply add to the confusion by sitting on the porch, chatting with the Methodist minister, while her lap smoked, but I understand the attempt at discretion.

Finally, my apron, being emblazoned with the store's name and logo, and being a bright purple, makes me, I should think, pretty immediately recognizable as an employee of the bookstore. This has allowed me to abandon the hated lanyard entirely.

Few of my coworkers on the sales floor would ever think to wear an apron. My example has not been imitated. That I wear it even out of the store, walking to the drugstore up the block, or when I step out to smoke a cigarette, seems to be considered very embarrassing indeed, though my fellow bookseller's have stopped flagging me down before I step into the street in my apron. I haven't the least self-consciousness about it. So I obviously work in the bookstore just behind me or down the block, what of it? Proud to do. Vanity is not among my sins anymore if it ever was. I yam what I yam, as Popeye used to say.

Just the other day, standing on the sidewalk, in my apron, enjoying a cigarette, I was accosted by a little gang of adolescents, begging cigarettes. These were not homeless waifs, mind, but thoroughly middle class brats; sporting iphones and expensive shoes and ridiculously large and complicated handbags. When I refused some puppy a cigarette, one of her friends, as they passed on, turned and sarcastically said:

"I want to work there just so I can wear that apron."

For once, my reply came in time, and through a cloud of delicious smoke I said:

"And I want to be 14 again, just so I can wear too much eye-makeup and be snotty to my elders in the street."

This almost never happens, of course, to any of us, but for once I had the satisfaction of shutting a teenager up.

It seems, besides the usual pencils and erasers, I had my wits about me, in my apron.

Daily Dose

From A History of the English People, by John Richard Green


"Home, as we conceive it now, was the creation of the Puritan."

From Book VII, Puritan England 1603 - 1660

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Good Professor's Meredith

Now I have George Meredith's An Essay on Comedy and the Use of the Comic Spirit to read. I found a copy, not knowing I was looking for it. The book is part of a series, "The Modern Student's Library," from Charles Scribner's Sons, this one from 1918. Years ago I bought and read The Essays of Addison and Steele, my first book of those essays, I think, in this same series. I still have that little book, and still read it in preference to others, because it is portable, well printed and well made, as have been all the others I've found in the same series. I've put back a few that had been read to pieces or scribbled in in ink, but generally, it would seem these books were made to outlive many owners. I like that. At roughly four and a half by six and a half, in plain but sturdy blue cloth, the titles embossed, with good notes, and never very expensive -- so far -- used, these books have become something my eye can find in an otherwise unpromising box, as I found the Meredith today.

As I said, I have the Meredith now to read. All I have read today though was the editor's brief preface, and a bit of the longer introduction, "The Idea of Comedy." It would seem the previous owner and or owners read no further than I have. Such pencil underlining and the few notes I've found in the book, all seem to come in the first thirty pages, before Meredith has even started. One of the previous owners has written her name and a date, "Regina De Armand, April 29, 1933," in the front. The hand that made the notes though, so far as I can distinguish, is different. Perhaps Regina read the book not at all. I prefer of course to think she had the sense to keep pencil and paper while she read, and chose not to deface the book with such inanities as "good!" and "just here," with an arrow. Some bookseller has also written, in ink, on the flyleaf, his price of fifteen cents. It's worth noting that I only paid a dollar for the book, nearly a century after it was published. Such is fame. The introduction, by one Lane Cooper, "Professor of the English Language and Literature at Cornell University," is informative and entertaining, though the entertainment tends to the unintentional, with lines such as these:

"He does not touch on the comic element in the Bible."

"Plautus, indeed, receives scant justice; and Scandinavian comedy -- for example, that of Holberg -- is not brought under consideration; nor are Russian authors considered."

With all due respect to the editor, Plautus would seem an oversight, but Holberg? (Evidently a Norwegian laugh riot.) But then, one might elaborate from the Professor's scant list, neither it seems does Meredith do justice to those hilarious Danes, Japanese, Fiji Islanders or Canadians.

As is my habit with older curiosities, I turned to the back of the book to peruse the notes and index. Don't misunderstand, I think the editor, in addressing the students of 1918, will prove a helpmate to the casual reader of 2009, and whatever his prejudice for the comedians of the Old & New Testaments, etc., I am already grateful for his brief explanation of the philosophic influences on George Meredith and the editor's own wide reading in support of this edition. His notes constitute fully half the length of this little book, and in this instance, I think such thoroughness will prove an aid.

But it is his bibliography that has tickled me most just now. The first part is a straightforward, alphabetical list of the comic writers referenced, presumably, either in the text of the essay or the editor's own notes. From Addison to Wycherley, these make up a list interesting in and of itself. There are mysteries here, as well as the familiar names, and I don't know that I betray any special ignorance in finding, between Lucian and Menander, "Master Tyll Owlglass," whose "marvelous adventures and rare conceits," are unknown to me utterly, a bit of a surprise. Very interesting, that name. I must look him up. The list is also interesting in an antiquarian way for referencing the standard editions of the editor's day, so that I might now look out, for example, for "Addison, Works, ed. Hurd and Bohn. 6 vols. London, 1873." I dread to think of the price nowadays for a full set of that, but I will look.

The editor's second bibliography though offers tonight's lesson. In his preface, he quotes from Lord Morley's Recollections, a work in two stout volumes which I happen to own, being a fan of some of John Morley's essays. I've dipped in the memoirs, but might do more, being reminded of them here. But it is not Morley or the other friends of Meredith who are listed in the editor's second bibliography, rather there are the texts on comedy Professor Cooper seems to have felt most helpful for further study. There are a few writers on Meredith mentioned, and there are some happily familiar names, like Lamb and Macaulay, and some terribly serious souls like Henri Bergson and Herbert Spencer, even Sigmund Freud's Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious, is here, which seems terribly forward thinking of the Professor in 1918, considering its publication in English is listed here as just 1916, but the greater number of the authorities suggested are as unknown to me as Master Tyll Owlglass and the Baron Holberg. Of those last two gentlemen, I might just have to learn more. As for the academics cited...

Here endeth the lesson.

Daily Dose

From The Story of My Life, by Augustus J. C. Hare


"Lady Charlemont said, 'Whenever I make a very naughty quotation from Don Juan, I always preface it by saying, 'As Dr. Walls so touchingly observes --''"

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Reader's Lament

Thinking about why it is I so often want not what I have but what I can ill afford, and I think I may have arrived at an answer, or, better say, a better question, at least in so far as I'm talking about books. (As to any larger issues, personal, psychological, philosophical, etc., I think it best to leave those to the privacy of my own none too tortured reflection, don't you?) I want expensive books not because they are expensive, but because the books I want to read and own, so that I might read them again, happen to be expensive. Why is that? That's really my question. Why, for example, are the two volumes from Oxford University Press of New Writings of William Hazlitt, two hundred and seventy five dollars? Why, for that matter, are The Complete Works, as edited by P. P. Howe in twenty one volumes, now worth thousands of dollars, and the nine volumes of The Selected Works, edited like the two new volumes, by Duncan Wu, selling for fourteen hundred dollars?

I know all, or most, of the usual justifications for this: limited, largely scholarly interest, the expenses of research and editing to be defrayed, the necessity of a small print-run in expectation of low sales, yadda, yadda, yadda, -- you should forgive my saying. I'm a bookseller and I've used exactly these explanations with customers shocked by the prices of specialized and or academic books. I do think it fair, should one write, say, the definitive text on a rare species of ringworm, or the best manual for a software program used by less than a thousand other people, that specialists need to expect the expense of specialization. My next question though would be, when did English literature become a specialty, like entomological research or computer engineering? When exactly, and why, did the best of our common literary heritage cease to be something one could reasonably expect to read for any purpose other than research? Because, ironically enough, one is actually likelier to find the latest treatise on ringworm or the code necessary to make the sky blue in a Pixar cartoon, than one is to find a decently edited and comprehensive collection of Hazlitt in a public library, let alone a bookstore.

Forget for a minute that it has taken me years from my first acquaintance with the great essayist to amass the books I now own, including the five volumes of The Miscellaneous Works of William Hazlitt, published in 1876 and Lamb and Hazlitt: Further Letters and Records Hitherto Unpublished, edited by William Carew Haziltt, from 1899, both of which I find in my search of the database for the Seattle Public Library. Neither the Howe edition nor the Wu is listed. I can't afford either, but could the Seattle Public Library not? And what about the two new volumes from Oxford? Is it safe to assume that these will likewise not be in the great library's collection, as they are unlikely to ever be in mine? Is it really true that my humble collection of second hand Hazlitt is substantively the equal of the best public library in the Northwestern United States? I do have nearly as many books by William Hazlitt as they do, and in the same editions, in addition to the two I mentioned. So how then is the reader of Hazlitt to read him without buying him, piecemeal and in old and delicate editions, if not piecemeal and in old and delicate editions at the public library? To try to find Hazlitt, new or used, in even so good a bookstore as the one in which I work is almost impossible. The Penguin collection never comes when reordered, and the Oxford paperback, in its present edition, was edited by an idiot who felt the need to abbreviate one of Hazlitt's most famous essays!

I am increasingly convinced that the least often acknowledged reason for, or at least a contributing factor to, the widely accepted decline of reading in the Western World may well be the result of our public institutions being priced out of the market for good books by the ridiculous prices set on those books by other public institutions. Now this assumes that the lack of a definitive set of William Hazlitt has been felt by someone in Seattle other than a snotty book clerk with a taste for English essays. But surely, there must have been someone at the Seattle Public Library who saw, if not the Howe, then the Wu edition, which dates back little more than a decade to 1998, in a catalogue, and passed. Perhaps the acquisitions librarian at the time was already restrained by the anticipated space and fiscal restrictions of the as yet unrealized new library building of which we are all so very proud, here in Seattle. I would like to think that someone at least sighed before the page was turned and one of the greatest authors in our language was skipped over. I don't know any such thing, of course, but I'd like to think so. (Just as I'd like to think, when I visited two new and or recently improved branches, that someone other than me was embarrassed to see more books by Stephen King than by either Jane Austen or Charles Dickens in the open stacks, but then I seem to be assuming against the evidence of my own eyes.)

So why then, to return to the question with which I almost started, is the best edition of William Hazlitt so damned expensive? Why not, having created such a wonderful book, print enough and in an affordable enough edition as to make it attractive, if not to the general public, at least to libraries? But then, that question may have been asked and answered. I want expensive books because they are good. Libraries don't necessarily want good books when they are expensive, because I may be the only one to ever ask for them, but then I may be the only one to ever ask for them because how else is anyone to know of their existence unless the books are readily available at a library or for a bookseller to recommend?

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

It seems, so far as I can tell from well outside of the institutions I find so frustrating, that literature is a specialty nowadays after all, however absurdly ridiculous that idea strikes me as being. Readers, I'm convinced, had nothing to do with this. Hazlitt has had and continues to have readers for nearly all of the past two hundred years. May he always. What he has now, sad to say, in addition, like Samuel Johnson and so many others, are definitive editions never meant to be read. Literature would seem to be no more a common interest now than ringworm and pixels, and if this is true, it is a bitter irony that the institutions meant to preserve and promote it are largely responsible for rendering it inaccessible to any but specialists.

Meanwhile, there's a new boxed set, from Norton, of all the Highsmith Ripley novels, The Complete Ripley Novels: The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Ripley Under Water. This is only one hundred dollars. I might be able to get that for my birthday. I don't need it, actually, as I already own these books and frankly have no immediate plans to reread them, but I think I want it. So there's all my high-flown indignation undermined by a simple admissions of plain old fashioned covetousness. Hell, I don't even know that I think all that highly of Highsmith, I just like her.

Blew it a little at the end there, didn't I? Oh well, indignation is exhausting. Maybe I can find the Howe edition in a broken set on the Internet somewhere, like I've found the occasional stray volume of the Yale Johnson.

Damn Yale. Damn Oxford. Damn me.

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Daily Dose

From Vainglory, by Ronald Firbank


"'I feel I want to go somewhere and be quietly ugly for a week,' Miss Compostella was confiding to George Calvally, as she cut a little wild-duck with her luminous hands. 'The effort of having to look more or less like one's photographs is becoming such a strain.'"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Pimp and the Antiquary

We are still buying, despite being unable to list what we buy until after our inventory on Sunday. For the next three days, everything we buy will be cleaned, priced, and stowed away, the retail value recorded to be entered separately from the rest of our stock. I can't sell any of these books until after the inventory, so instead, they sit. I do not much care for this. Our business model is premised on the quick turn of good books. That's the trick of it, for the used books buyer, getting the books and getting them out there on the sales floor, working. I do not often buy books for the store that I don't think will sell quickly. If that sounds a bit pimpish, well, there it is. I'm just a bookseller with used stock, not anything quite so grand as a dealer. I do not move much in the more rarefied atmosphere of auctions, estates and specialized clientele. I just sell books, new and used, for a living. The store I work in is quite a remarkable place: big, beautiful, comprehensive in many ways, more than one hundred years old. It is a local institution. Even so, as just the used books guy, while I'm not quite the rag & bone end of the business -- with bins of tatty dollar paperbacks and dusty stacks of any old thing piled on the floor -- mine is rather a down-market expertise, and my contribution to the bookstore and the community it serves more democratic than prestigious. What I'm not, you see, is an antiquarian.

As I mentioned only too recently, for years now I've been going downtown to visit a beautiful set of Ronald Firbank. It calls to me. This five volume treasure, The Works of Ronald Firbank, "London & New York: Duckworth & Brentano's, 1929. Limited Edition," in addition to being lovely, has "an introduction by Arthur Waley, a biographical Memoir by Osbert Sitwell" and the glorious, dusty smell of real quality. All the publication details mentioned above, I have all but memorized from my visits with the books, though I take them tonight from a website. These books live in a beautiful bookshop, full of beautiful and rare things. Like nearly everything in the place, the Firbank I've come to think of as mine, despite the impossibility of ever having the money to buy it, would seem to be waiting for just the right buyer, and while spiritually, romantically, I'm sure that would be me, practically, I know it's not. Aisle after aisle and case after case in Wessel & Leiberman Booksellers, Inc., would seem to be crowded with just such patient sirens, each book disdainful of any reader but the right one, content to drowse prettily until purchased. My Firbank (!) seems to tolerate my attentions, a grand courtesan indulging the regular, lusty pining of a passing punter, but I don't think those books ever expect to shelved on painted pine boards, between an ex-library copy of dear Daisy Fellowes and a cheap reprint of Ford Madox Ford's The Fifth Queen. Imagine the cheek of even daydreaming such books on my shelves! Ronald would be shocked to his clocked socks, in so appropriately fine an edition, to find himself otherwise represented by remainders.

Just today, I had the opportunity of looking through a big box of rejected library books. Most, nearly all, in fact, were good old books, but spoiled by the usual disregard of librarians and card-holders: pasted pockets, stamped and stained pages, broken hinges and numbered and painted spines. There were a few minor tragedies, like what was once a very nice edition of The Rubaiyat with color plates, but for the most part, these old books, having already served their purpose, deserve nothing better now than an uncomfortable retirement among the literate poor, where bibliophiles like me will be glad of a damaged but well-made one volume edition of Milton. I didn't buy anything from the box for the bookstore. Our standards, in terms of condition, preclude most if not all ex-library books, as not quite nice enough to sell on a shelf next to new. There were however just a few genuinely rare books in that box, two beautiful books in French, with exquisite color plates, still covered with tissue, handsomely bound if worn, and to be sold at a price prohibitive for the likes of me as a collector, and probably no time soon by the dealer who takes them on. I sent the wonderful woman selling these books to Wessel & Leiberman. I send sellers with fine books to them regularly. I know the sellers will be given a fair price and that the good dealers at that good shop will be able to find the right buyers for the best books.

Meanwhile, I was just grateful for the opportunity to handle and look at such beautiful books. This is one of the joys of my job. If, now and again, I allow myself to buy a handsome set of Shakespeare to sell from our one glass case, or a good set of Dickens that can be displayed at Christmas time, I am only too aware that this does not make me a dealer of the type best represented by such honest shops as Wessel & Leiberman. There one doubtlessly will find the expertise and taste, and the patience, required for selling to the antiquary, as well as the odd, dusty beauty to tempt and torment even so poor a suitor as myself. I don't actually mind though, knowing my Firbank is still there, on the same shelf where it has been since I first moved to Seattle, if not longer. I know at least where it is. I can visit and admire it at least. Until some enviably solvent queen carries it off. I selfishly rue the day, but I don't begrudge either the dealer or the next lucky owner the pleasure of that still potential transaction. Firbank, after all, deserves no less than fumed oak and a houseboy to dust him. Here he'd just be exposed to an unhealthy atmosphere of cigarette smoke and eager fingering. Well beneath his dignity.

But one can dream...

Daily Dose

From Telling Tales, by Alan Bennett


"My mother has never had a cocktail dress for the simple reason that she has never had a cocktail."

From Eating Out

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Perchance to Dream

Come Sunday evening, I will be back in the bookstore. This is more usually for me a time spent eating whatever dear A. has cooked, watching the most pointless television -- and "The Simpsons" -- and dozing over a book. This Sunday just gone, for instance, I was in my nightshirt, eating chicken and noodles, and reading, yet again, the story of The Armada, this time in the sixth volume of Green's A History of the English People. Already, I look back on Sunday as a paradise lost, to be regained, admittedly in two weeks time or thereabouts, but that does not, for the moment, help.

Today I learned that today was in fact the last day when additions and or alterations could still be made to our stock. Because of the need to have a point of comparison, a "snapshot," if you will, of things as we assume them to be, to evaluate the results of this Sunday's inventory count, we must stop entering new titles, changing prices and quantities, etc., today. I had thought that this was to happen tomorrow, but no. No one's fault, I probably just misunderstood. Never the less, I took the news badly.

Last Saturday, the last day of my usual work week, I entered everything we had bought at the Used Books buying desk, save half a dozen or so titles I simply could not get on before the store closed. In years past, I would simply have stayed and worked a bit of overtime. For reasons obvious to any but hermits, overtime is no longer an option for most retail workers in America, myself included. How then we have managed to do as much as has already been done to prepare for this coming Sunday is little short of miraculous. How grateful I am for all the help of my good coworkers! As it is, I think most of what ought to be done has been. What's left behind the desk can be counted, one way and another, and any books we buy between tomorrow and Sunday can still be accounted for, if not entered properly into Stock until after our inventory is done.

This is the time of year when my dreams become troubled. My nights are haunted by the relentless clicking and beeping of the data entry done by inventory service workers, and I hear "SKU check!" in my sleep and start from my bed to find the book with the "bad" tag. Scenarios of disaster whirl through my brain: missing books discovered behind shelving, counts so badly miscalculated as to require the intervention of accountants, transmissions of data gone hopelessly wrong, used books counted as new or new books counted as used...

Actually, my experience of inventories at the bookstore where I now work has been more enervating than traumatic, in part at least from my responsibilities being, thankfully, less than was the case elsewhere. Now I am but one among many, and that is good. But I have passed through many fires in bookstore inventories past and each year the memories of these are all brought back to me, and I quake.

My first inventory as the manager of a small branch store in San Francisco was one such. How this business works, for any lucky enough not to know, is that sometime around closing, the inventory workers begin to arrive. These are people employed by a service to count canned peas, books, pencils, widgets, whatever is sold in the store to which they have been sent. They wear uniform vests, belts with cumbersome calculators attached, and usually rather weary expressions. Almost all of these workers, in my experience, are perfectly nice, hardworking, and surprisingly adaptable. It seems to me that nearly all of them smoke, a point in their favor. Once the store closes, these inventory workers fan out and begin the grim business of counting every blessed thing with a price-tag. This goes on and on and on and on... Sometime in the wee hours, all of this information is collected from the individual machines and transmitted to some central information bank, to be processed, checked, and transmuted into a more accurate and workable inventory for the store. There are always glitches: technical, in staffing, in planning, coordination, and so on, and these, like the anomalous stock discovered on the sales floor, must be addressed before the task is done. At some point, every year, there is nothing left to do but wait. And wait. And wait. All but the supervisors of the inventory service and the required bookstore staff are let go. And so we greet the dawn. The first inventory for which I was primarily responsible did not go well. This was before we had a computerized inventory. We had index cards. Counts were checked using calculators and estimates of the average value of a given shelf of books. The night I was first doing this in a store that I managed, I failed rather miserably to keep track of things. Inventory workers were dismissed prematurely, based on my miscalculations. The "pre-counts" done earlier in the day all proved to be inaccurate, improperly recorded, or lost.

In short, anything I could fuck up, I did.

My employers were helpful, forgiving, not surprisingly a little short-tempered with me. Come the morning, I wished for death.

No inventory since has been as bad, though many have been bad enough. Once, an inventory worker had an allergic reaction to her pizza or somesuch and had to be rushed away by ambulance. Chaos. More than once, the machines used to transmit data failed to function, or the phone-lines went down, or whole areas of stock were overlooked or misidentified. My worst moment, after that first disaster, came while I was still working at Stacey's main bookstore, of sad memory now. A personal conflict between a supervisor from the inventory service and one of her workers escalated into an ugly confrontation that was quickly, and quite professionally, taken off the floor and into the alley behind the store. Unaware of the drama, I blithely chose just the moment before to wander out into the alley for a smoke. Recognizing that I was, at that moment, de trop to say the least, rather than excuse myself and walk past the confrontation and back into the store, I instead tried to move invisibly 'round the two angry women, who were, just at that moment, discussing behavior that was not only embarrassing, but so completely none of my business that I ought simply to have slipped around the corner, walked the block to the front door, and knocked to be let in that way. As I said, that ain't what I did. I was younger then, and frankly stupid, and, as it turned out, not invisible. Just when the poor woman being told to collect her things and go decided to ask again for a reprieve and explain herself one last time by again shouting, "I have an IRRITABLE BOWEL!!!" I was discovered behind them, desperately yanking at the door handle, which for some reason, I had completely forgotten how to work.

"'scuse me," I think I said, stupidly pushing instead of pulling, or vice versa, I forget which, "'scuse me."

By the time I had made good my escape, a deathly silence poured through the door behind me. Sometime later, the supervisor found me in the store and quite nicely asked me to be discreet. A little late, but I did try.

While I expect no such drama to play out this Sunday, I do expect there will be all the usual complications, addressed with the usual efficiency of our inventory service and the superior professionalism of my coworkers and betters. I have learned to keep my head down, or at least to be more cognizant of my surroundings when I go out to smoke. Try as I might though, I know that for the next few nights, Morpheus will visit me in a red cotton vest, wearing a huge calculator on his belt, and calling, from some inaccessible corner of my consciousness:

"SKU check!"

Sigh. And so, wearily to bed and back to the count.

Daily Dose

From Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life, by Edna O'Brien


"Writers writing about other artists has always appealed to me -- Rilke on Rodin, addressing that mysterious meditation between life and art. Virginia Woolf's Common Reader, providing those quick, deft glimpses that give us the human quotidian and a whiff of the genius within; Hardy watering the ink or Dorothy Wordsworth trudging up a wet road with dear William, to seek out a waterfall."

From The Introduction

Monday, June 22, 2009

Were I to Make a Whore of My Soul

My first apartment was taken with two friends, the second semester of our freshman year at college. It was just down the street from the playhouse where we all three worked. Neither the building nor the neighborhood was of the best, but these quarters were what we could afford. We were young and could walk up seven, eight or more flights without breathlessness. If the streets were dangerous after dark, and the lobby often unlit, we moved through the gloom will all the arrogance of youth, secure in our immortality. We were burgled of our few possessions at least one, suffered bugs, broken radiators and a riotous party or two that lost us a bedroom door, somehow, though we none of us could quite remember it going. When one of my roommates was drunk, he would bring me stolen stop signs. When the other had a boyfriend or a trick over, which was all too frequently, I vacated the bottom bunk and slept on the sofa in the living room, under the Erte poster.

We all had a lovely time.

Our building was the survivor of twins. Just opposite was another just like ours, only burned out. This did not prevent occupancy though. Various squatters and junkies lived in the rooms that hadn't burned. The whores that worked the stroll on our block were all black amazons; no girl seemingly under seven feet, with hair and heels. I was too simple a country boy to appreciate that any of these ladies might in fact be gentlemen, or some compromise between. This was eventually explained to me. I continued polite and they proved friendly enough, at least to me. My roommate with the frequent visitors caused some controversy among the working girls, who resented what they quite rightly saw as unfair amateur competition. They were not nice to my friend.

Up the street from us, in a boarding house, lived three retarded ladies -- so we described them then, in a less enlightened and or euphemistic time. They rode the bus together to the jobs they worked together, went to Mass together and came home. One night, as a roommate and I came home from our shift ushering at the playhouse, these ladies were robbed, their purses snatched. We gave chase to the thieves, and my roommate was punched in the throat before the miscreants jumped in a car and escaped. The ladies were terrified and very upset to have lost their purses, in each of which had been little more than a bus-pass and a rosary. When the working girls on the block heard of this crime, and recognized the victims, they not only gathered a collection among themselves, but sent a designated representative who bought three new bus-passes and three lovely new rosaries to replace those that had been snatched. Sadly, the frightened little ladies would not open their door to the beneficent amazons, who then required us to deliver their gifts. They asked no thanks, though I know their interactions with these particular neighbors improved thereafter, once the gifts were explained. I don't know that the amazons minded nearly so much as they protested about having clients frightened away by the loud greetings of three plump, elderly ladies. It wasn't like the ladies to be out at the peak hours for their neighbor's business anyway.

I thought of the amazons at work the other day. In front of the bookstore, every day, in fair weather and foul, winter and summer, passersby are subjected to daily solicitation, not from respectable prostitutes, but from kids shilling various causes, charities and political groups. It is not too much to say, I would rather real whores roamed these streets. To be met every day with the aggressive, nay, relentless attentions of bright-eyed youngsters with binders and clipboards, trained to feign recognition and greet complete strangers as if they were long lost friends, is far worse than being offered "a party" by a seven foot drag with a knife in her purse. True whores have no time for the disinterested and move quickly on to likelier prospects. These little demons on The Ave. will walk with one the length of the block, insisting they want "just a minute" of one's time. They will take the arm of any polite soul fool enough to hesitate or return a smile. I've watched them corner every description of innocent, bullying and cajoling and insisting that "no commitment" is required, before pitching the contract they've been paid to pitch.

Years ago, I worked a few voter registration tables and the like. We were instructed to be friendly, to regularly announce our purpose, often as not to the thin air, and to greet folks warmly even when they hurried by and into the grocery store or shoe shop behind us. We never, to my recollection, chased anyone, asked them, as I have been asked by the charity shills, why they "didn't want to save ---," the children, civil rights, or the planet. I may not have registered that many voters or returned my petitions heavy with signatures, but neither did I harangue old women in the street or attack naive teenagers for their evident lack of social responsibility.

The organizations that use these pugnacious puppies to solicit membership and donations would like the public to think that the evident enthusiasm of these cretins comes from a fervent belief. This is not so. The brats seen today working to "save gay marriage in California" will be back tomorrow, in a differently stitched vest, to "feed the hungry babies," and again, the day after, to "save responsible logging." These little bullies work not for a cause, but from the back of a van. They are sent out cynically from boiler-rooms, with memorized scripts, and with no more conviction than the worst actors in a cheap commercial.

These kids may not be as awful as their job, but what they do can not be good for them. I would pity them, some of them anyway, if they did it somewhere other than the threshold I have to cross every day. As for their employers, Dante could not invent an appropriate circle of Hell. As for the organizations that hire such scum, I can not imagine their fundraising really requires the corruption of youth and the harassment of the general public.

I know something of the real charity of whores. It is a nobler thing than whoring for charity, of that I am sure.

Daily Dose

From Utopia's Debris: Selected Essays, by Gary Indiana


"The bourgeois learns that he is alone in the universe with the same bovine complacency that he learns that he is speaking prose."

From Major Motifs

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Soft Fruit

This will seem silly, I know, but I can not help but celebrate Spring, here while I have the chance, by singing something in praise of soft fruit. Annually, my friends, family and coworkers are subjected to this unbridled enthusiasm of mine for pitted fruit. Come June, my daily conversation tends to degenerate into comparisons of peaches, disquisitions on the true ripeness of a given cherry, raptures over apricots, and longish speculations in happy anticipation of plums and pluots, plucots and apriums yet to come. Nothing in the calendar quite compares. I am happiest, I think, with the juice of a ripe peach running down my arm, with another five or six still to be studied in the bowl, only to be taken up at the moment when the flesh is perfectly sweet, or whenever I've finished the first. I am not one for the out-of-doors,I have no interest in wandering orchards. I am content with supermarkets, except when it comes to wandering Sunday Farmer's Markets, in search of perfect, sweet, soft, yielding fruit. For good peaches, I will walk a mile, no little undertaking for a man making his lunch every day for a week, as I've just done, exclusively of fruit. And I smoke, so imagine the shape I'm in.

One fantasy common to bookstore employees is inventing books that no one has actually felt the need of, to date. My idea of a winning anthology would be a collection of the best fruit writing. Poems other than that dreary refrigerator note of William Carlos Williams on the plum he ate, must be out there, just waiting to be lovingly gathered into a book and preserved like jugged raspberries, to be opened in the bleak winters of dull apples and unchanging oranges. I would not, of course, exclude the good Granny Smith from my book, or refuse an ode to the banana, but really, I would favor my favorites wherever I might. And there are possibilities among the poets, though most, foolishly by my lights, use fruit only as a metaphor for less immediately rewarding, human love. Old James Whitcomb Riley comes here to mind, with his insistence that

"The ripest peach is highest on the tree,
And so mine eyes gaze upward eagerly."

This showing the failure of the poet to appreciate that while not all peaches are equal, any peach is better than no peach and that, in my experience, waiting for just the right peach to fall in one's lap is a mug's game when there are so many perfectly good peaches, at least come June, just littering the grass, as it were, at one's feet.

I am, come April, so impatient of my peaches I will eat the hard and juiceless things they put out and call peaches, just on the off chance that these might at least suggest something of the pleasures to come in June. But I know I ought not, that I will be sorely disappointed, just as I always am in those gorgeous and useless big Strawberries they bring in from Chile or some such place. These are paste and shellack, of course, compared to the actual, local, bloody red and bumpy little knots of perfect sweetness that are the strawberries of June. I should not let my anticipation lead me from the truth of June.

Eugene Field, the now unsalable favorite of many an American householder when grandma was still fresh on the ground, wrote a wonderful little cautionary poem of fruit taken in anticipation, "The Little Peach," in which two greedy brats end beneath the daisies for knocking "a little peach of emerald hue" too soon from the tree, and then eating it anyway. Served them right, too.

Now Andrew Marvell, in "The Garden," speaks for me:

“The nectarine, and curious peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.”

That is just about the very essence, isn't it? I can think of no better description of my happiness in summer's pitted perfection. I'm dizzy with it. As I do every year, I refuse absolutely the possibility that this bounty will end, and soon enough. And so back upstairs to have another nectarine and press my thumb gently into the fat pink and yellow peach I've been watching all day as it soaked in the sun and turned it to thick, wet, yellow sugar, so that I might have that too before bed, to dream of strawberries by the case and plums and pluots and...

Clerihew for a Dinky Bird


Eugene Field
Does not yield
The pleasure he did
When I was a kid.

Daily Dose

From The Wanton Chase: An Autobiography from 1939, by Peter Quennell


"... when the old statesman announced that he must go home and, dutifully attended by Randolph, ambled towards the street, he could be heard enquiring who I was. 'An author,' Randolph replied; 'he's writing a book on John Ruskin.' 'Ah, Rushkin, Rushkin,' responded the senior Churchill in his sibillant, sonorous voice that has been so often parodied; and, reflectively, as he bade his son farewell: 'Rushkin -- a man with a shingularly unfortunate shex-life...'"

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Bad Manners

Of how many literatures am I completely ignorant, or nearly so? Just today, someone on the television, an Iranian, quoted one of the Persian poets with that touching conviction that his American viewers might recognize, if not the name, then at least the quotation. Along with the host and, I do not doubt, the vast majority of the watching American populace, I met this lovely gesture with a blank stare. Who? I could not, at this moment, and with access to at least two small anthologies of Persian poetry in translation in my own house, quote so much as a line or name a single poet. I'm a little ashamed of that fact, but only a little.

When I think of all the as yet unread, unexplored books in my own house, of all the great poets and essayists and novelists who have written in English that I have yet to read, the very idea of acquiring even a passing acquaintance with Persian literature strikes me just now as unlikely at best. Which is not to say I wouldn't want to know such lovely things as the line quoted today. I just don't think I ever will.

Likewise the literature of China, Finland, Chile, Korea, Ghana. I mention these as examples because, off the top of my thick head, I can with some confidence say that I have read, again admittedly only in English translations, books written originally in the languages of each. Have I studied the literature of any of these? No. Am I likely to? No. Do I have any prejudice against any of these or any other? Well, I don't know that I do.

Among the French and the Russians, even among the Danes, there have been authors I read and treasured. With the first two, I have read enough to claim at least a passing acquaintance with, if not by any means their literature, then at least with a few of their greatest novelists and poets. But what does that mean, that acquaintance? For me it has been and continues to be more a question of personality than nationality. True, there was a time, when I was much younger and intended to read everything good, when I tried to read more systematically, when I started, for example, with this South American and then moved to that, but I can't manage that sort of thing anymore, even if I wanted to. I do not feel I have the time now. I would not know where to begin with much of the world's literature.

I worked briefly with a rather dour little woman from Romania. I mentioned Mircea Eliade, of whom I'd read just a little, and asked politely after other Romanian writers she might be able to recommend. She drew on her cigarette, exhaled dramatically and said, "It's enough to have heard of the one, really. You would not enjoy them, even if they were available in English. You must trust me about this. Even Romanians shouldn't have to read the great Romanian poets."

Now I have no idea what she meant, or what what she said says about either Romanians or their literature, but I confess I met her dismissal with some relief. I certainly found her comments memorable. I was taken aback, of course, at not being applauded for pulling at least Eliade from the air, but my embarrassment at being caught out with just the one writer in mind, was as nothing compared to my pleasure in the honesty with which she dismissed the others as unnecessary to the casual American reader, however eager to make friends. I don't know that she was right, but I don't know that she was wrong either.

My acquaintance with most of the world comes from books, but often as not these have been books in English, written by English or American authors, if not expats, then just travelers. And even the writers native to such places as India that I know best, tend to be those who write in English. I can't say this seems such an unfortunate thing to me. What else am I to do with the little time I have?

The obvious problem with much that I've read of foreign lands, written by authors themselves foreign to the places they've written about, is that these have given me less connection to, say, India than to the British in India. Which is not to denigrate the value of Forster's India to me, or Paul Scott's, but it would be a mistake to think of their respective Indias as India. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is a great writer, but how much of her India is German? how much is English? Anita Desai or R. K. Narayan or Kamala Markandaya have given me no less pleasure, but have they given me more of India?

And the old colonials and tourists, the religious seekers and students of revolution, even the most liberal of them, as opposed to the natives, to use a loaded word, seem often as not to let slip, here and there, something that betrays if not a prejudice, than a preference, either for India or "home," that colors everything they've written with a slight taint of either naivete or racism; the foreign place inevitably being either mysterious and unknowable, hence somehow richer than Bayswater or Cleveland, or strange and dangerous, oddly enough, at least in my experience, much like Cleveland.

There is something to be said about loving a place not really one's own that will never quite make it that. There have been great writers, and here I'm thinking particularly of the English, though some Americans also come to mind, who make the mistake of assuming ownership, which rather spoils even their most insightful writing about the worlds they move in but to which they never really belong. Reading Charles Allen's Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling, I am reminded, yet again, of just this failure. The examples of this contradiction in Kipling are specially striking, because no other author in English did more to support and prop the Imperialism of the time, Kipling being perhaps the only genius in our letters who was also an unapologetic jingo, while at the same time, it can be fairly argued, no other Englishman in India wrote with more consistent empathy for and with more genuine understanding of the real lives of the poorest Indians. In just one brief passage, Allen describes a period of feverish productivity when Kipling wrote some of the best and most humane stories of Indian life he was ever to produce, stories like that of the sweeper Mowgri, in "The Great Census," and his tale of "Little Tobrah," even as he wrote the most censorious, reactionary screeds, in poetry and prose, attacking any among the colonials who might challenge the existing order and British rule. Even those who proved to be champions of Kipling's work, like Sir William Hunter, who went on to write one of Kipling's most important and influential positive reviews, but who dared, in retirement, to publicly support the Indian National Congress, were not spared. Kipling called him a hypocrite and worse in a nasty little poem for the the magazine the Pioneer called, "To the Address of W. W. H." It is worth noting that it was after this ugly poem's publication, and Kipling's receipt of a painfully kind letter from the subject of the poem, that this same gentleman went on to praise Kipling's poetry in print. That the only discomfort Kipling seems to have felt in this instance was entirely personal, an embarrassment at his bad manners, suggests an active refusal to consider any opinion, even that of a supporter of his work, even of a fellow Englishman, that challenged, however indirectly, the racism that ruins nearly all of Kipling's work for contemporary readers. Kipling would insist that India was as much his, by birth, as it was any Indian's. That he loved the country, that he was in fact born there, does not, for readers in the 21st Century, excuse either his awful politics or his worse arrogance.

And this is a shame. I can recommend many of Kipling's Indian stories without reservation, or would, if Kipling himself were not so much in the way. Kipling's India was my first. I rather doubt I would ever have gone on to visit Narayan's India had I not been fascinated first by The Jungle Book, and by Kim. I might have done, but I might not.

I think we take the path out into the world and the world's literature that is open to us, most of us anyway. There are good and brave souls who make their own way, who study languages and cultures other than their own and who find a place for themselves elsewhere. I will never be one of these. I will always be only a tourist. I think I am resigned to that, long since. And if there are places, like ancient Persia, where I have still yet to set foot, I think I am alright in thinking the only loss will be my own if I never go there. I'm sure the Persians won't have noticed my absence, though I'd bet they'll be marvelous hosts, should I stumble in one day. The man quoting the poet on TV this morning seemed charming.

Daily Dose

From Manners from Heaven, by Quentin Crsip


"The lie is the basic building block of good manners. That may seem mildly shocking to a moralist -- but then what isn't?"

Friday, June 19, 2009

WE Are Not Amused

Perhaps I'd better explain myself. Not an easy thing to do, always. Bear with me, please. To be misunderstood is so frustrating because, we like to think, as those dancing delinquents once so eloquently put it, "deep down inside us there is good." Here again, intentions. In an earlier post, I outlined mine for a display celebrating, in a lighthearted way, the gay side of Pride. Some weeks back, I requested, through all the proper channels, a sign for this proposed table of books and oddments. The sign was to read, simply "Summer Camp." Now, in a day sadly gone by, I might simply have made such a sign myself. Things are different now. As I mentioned, I instead asked for what I wanted. That was not, after a long silence, what I got.

It seems I again did not explain myself adequately, because the first sign produced was, well, hideous, even embarrassing. The idea was to comment, in a winking spirit, on the increasingly ponderous way in which my favorite minority tends to celebrate June, this time emphasizing not the history but the histrionics, not the accomplishments, but the camp. What I got was sign that might have been just the thing, had we put out a table of "My Little Pony" memorabilia. On a lavender background, with green block letters, a wide, clip-art rainbow frowned. This was not good. This was not what was wanted. Camp, it seems, still requires more explanation.

But how? If one does not get a joke, how to explain it? Well, I did try, once I'd gotten over my speechless shock. Is it really possible, in this, the age of triumphant irony, of crosdressing television comics and female celebrity celebrated for dressing and talking like drag queens, that there can really be someone left in the world, let alone in the employ of a bookstore, let alone a graphic artist, who does not "get" camp? Evidently just such a one was asked to make a sign for my table display.

This story has a moderately happy ending, so let me get that out of the way. After an awkward exchange with the intermediary, and reference to a few books, and yet more time, I was able to get a sign -- featuring a bright pink wig -- that better represented my original thought. The table went up in the bookstore's lobby and we've already sold copies of two Patrick Dennis novels, a few remainders, and a bit of chunky plastic jewelry. Success. Late and little, but still.

But what preoccupies me tonight is the idea that camp still required explanation. Like all such subcultural communication, the majority population was not meant, of course, to understand. (If the illustration above, for instance, does nothing for you, you aren't the audience for this essay. That's all. No fault of yours, or mine. Just the way things are, darling. Move on.) What was shocking was that I was being asked to explain the ironic use of the satirical feminine to women half my age, women who have directly benefited from the very challenge to traditional gender roles, established cultural and religious preconceptions of female sexuality and power, and hair and nail care, that camp represents. It would seem that our little sisters know not from whence came their butch green hair, their combat boots and their affectation of empowering masculine vulgarity.

Camp, my darlings, was bravely fucking with people's expectations before you girls smoked your first cigar. When feminism proper was still debating suffrage, there were already dykes wearing trousers and queens doing the foxtrot in heals. The subversion of gender and patriarchy predates even Madonna, dearies, honest. Having grown up in a culture so far past post, how could anyone not get the joke?

But then camp has been misunderstood, in some cases willfully, by even the best of our own. Most famously, there is the profoundly unfunny essay by the late Susan Sontag, whose unintentionally goofy, if influential misinterpretation of camp was said to have brought it to the attention of the intelligentsia, back in the day when we could still be said to have had such a thing. Ms. Sontag, perhaps the least funny lesbian in the whole history of our tribe, was closeted unto the death, or rather insistent on the irrelevance of her saphistry to her sophistry to the last. This makes a certain sense, biographically, as she seems always to have preferred the traditionally masculine life of the mind; sexuality , like feeling anything much below the neck, being thought suspiciously soft and girly, effeminate in other words, and as an intellectual top, and one of the first such from the minor American bush league, she probably felt she could ill afford to let her butch down, even when discussing the giggly radicalism that is camp. Her special place in American intellectual history, so far as I'm qualified to judge, comes primarily from her trailblazing promotion of the deadpan as discursive strategy. This insistent, unflinching seriousness, was in its way, a variation of drag, becoming as she did something like the Lincoln Monument in a wig, but even as she embraced and exemplified a new subversion of the previously gendered role of The Grand Old Man of American Belles Lettres, she could not understand, let alone explain the satirical joys of camp in any but the most ruthlessly martial, cold and priapically straight forward language of the lecture hall and blue book. She had to make camp dull to make it respectable, intellectually. She had to explain it to the straight boys in a language they understood, a language, moreover, she herself had mastered and in which she seemed to have found her own voice; a pugilistic argot of earnest, masculine American aggression, elevated by a francophone affectation of philosophic vagaries, appropriated from any academic discipline that had cultural currency, and that might or might not be applicable to any and every subject from movies to war. Thus her examples of camp tend to be a rather mixed bag of actual camp, like Firbank, and the leery, but presumably, recognizably, male dirty-mindedness of Fay Wray being stripped by the mechanical monkey digit. Sontag's camp is a woman's argument offered in a real man's language; power, its loss, exchange and reclamation, as represented by the misused pronoun. That she saps the whole enterprise of pleasure was presumably meant to show her seriousness even when discussing gaiety. The old girl has a lot to answer for, I think. And so, perhaps, a whole generation of pompous Queer theorists first learned to apply the most outrageously inflated language to the least frivolity, so as to be understood not to be silly. Sad, that.

Camp, as I tried clumsily to explain to my interlocutor at work, is not earnest, it is not about the promotion of a new and cheerful diversity as represented by bright rainbows. Camp is thievery, it is the adoption of attitudes, poses and inflections, hairdos, from what was at least once the primary culture as a means of subversion, a celebration of being wrong. Camp is criminal, marginal, and in opposition, or it fails. It ain't funny unless it's found, fucked with and made fabulous.

Camp, it seems, is not something that can really be explained to, shall we say? the uninitiated any better now than it was by that old bulldagger, Sontag, decades ago. But at least more of us seem to get the joke, nowadays. At least our customers do, evidently. If only the girls with access to Photoshop did! I shouldn't wonder Sontag never smiled. Thankless business, darling, thankless.

Misdiagnosed Clerihew


"Doctor" Oliver Goldsmith
Died from treating his cold with
The inadequate preparation
Of a limited education.

Daily Dose

From The Works of Oliver Goldsmith, Volume 1, collected by James Prior


'Nothing has been so often explained, and yet so little understood, as simplicity in writing."

From On a Taste for the Belle-Lettres

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Avarice Unchecked, Rechecked, Checked Off

So. The first of our two Employee Shopping Days, as I may have mentioned, is nigh. Our discount goes up by ten percent, just for the day. There is much hoarding of books in the days and weeks before this. Many a used book that has been hunted and lost will turn out to have been squirrelled away, who knows how long ago, on the employees' hold shelves, only to re-emerge on our sales report's com Saturday morning. Others, particularly expensive sets and rare editions, will be thought better of at the last moment and come drifting back onto the sales floor, just in time to be counted in our inventory. This can be annoying, of course, but a blind eye must be turned. I myself am in no position to judge. Like both my work-spouses, I have my own cache of ill-considered treasures to review for purchase come Friday.

For instance, the greatest of Dickens' many biographers, was, evidently, something of an expert on satire, and made a wonderful anthology: A Treasury of Satire: Including the world's greatest satirists, comic and tragic, from antiquity to the present time. Selected and edited, with critical and historical backgrounds, and an introduction on the nature and value of satire, by Edgar Johnson. I include the whole subtitle as shown on the cover, by way of explanation. For me, having had Johnson's great two volume biography of Dickens recommended to me when I was doing research for the public readings of Dickens I did last year, and having read same with pleasure and respect, seeing his name on another book, whatever the subject, has sold me. The book was published in 1945, when George Bernard Shaw was still very much alive, and cranky, and Johnson's essay on just why Shaw belonged in the anthology, and why Shaw would not allow any of his work to be included, is reason enough for me to own the book. Into the yes pile then with Edgar Johnson.

We get beautiful unread hardcover books from local reviewers -- called, in the trade, "full copy" as opposed to advanced reading copies printed cheaply in paper covers -- and these are specially difficult to resist at any time of the year, but never more so than when one is already anticipating an even deeper discount and a lower price. Among the books that I am determined to buy this time, there are at least three or four novels of just this provenance. None are books I might not just as easily read by way of borrowing, and yet I want, inexplicably, to own them outright. That I will, in all probability, end up selling all these books on later, doesn't mean I won't want to buy them Friday. They are so shiny new, you see, so very much of the moment, subject to wide and flattering review, that I can't help but think, at least while I read them, that having my own copy will be the best. This is idiotic. Adding books like Elinor Lipman's The Family Man to my stack adds considerably to the expense of the day without adding much to my library, where it is unlikely to stay. But I want it. I can buy it. I will.

Other books are already being discarded as unnecessary. These, sadly, are for the most part remainders and discounted books I could more easily afford, even were my discount to be as it usually is. Somehow, it is easier to part with these than with new books I need only wait a year or less to see reduced to the same condition, on the bargain tables, when, their moment gone, they are returned to their publishers en masse by the chain stores and discounters, and sold to us as remainders, same as these others. Such is the fate of nearly all hardcover fiction and history nowadays, and one need no longer even be all that patient to wait. But those black marks on the bottom edges of remainders do make books less valuable, less desirable, and while these disfigurations are only meant to prevent the return of these books to their publishers at full value, in fact, they make books less attractive, even on a day of special discounts. Putting ten remainders out of my pile and back into stock allows me to feel, I suppose, like a judicious buyer, even as the price of my total purchase continues to climb. I can't help but think that I've built myself a straw man to just this purpose by piling so many remainders up behind the desk for Friday. I need hardly say that I will probably buy them all thereafter anyway.

Some stray little books, most of them used and already cheap enough and far from necessary, books like Elizabeth's Eccentrics: Brief Lives of English Eccentrics, Exploiters, Rogues & Failures, 1580 - 1660, by Arthur Freeman, will go to the cash register with me come Friday as much from my embarrassment at having held on to them so long rather than having sent them to the floor as I ought to have done. I will read these, or at least read in them, once I get them home, not so much because I still feel the same curiosity I did when they first came across the buying desk, but because I feel I ought to justify even so small an expense by finding something in them as good or better than the fist taste I took when I took each with me on a break or to lunch, no matter how long ago that might have been or how little I remember now of the little I read then.

I know how mad this all must sound to anyone not afflicted with bibliophilia. That I should end my week hauling home books I may not even remember my reasons for wanting does seem an irrational admission, now I come to make it here. But however irrational the impulse to buy, buy, buy, I do not think, when compared to almost any other indulgence available to the likes of me, that this extravagance rates even so much disapprobation as I might indulge here. The books I buy do not get eaten, or smoked, or lost, they continue life in or out of my possession. My books will survive me.

I even know, sorta, where some of them will probably go. Friday I will buy the four latest Library of America volumes. These, along with every other volume in the series purchased to date, are in my will. I'll have little enough otherwise to leave behind me. No bad inheritance, that; the whole long history of literature in America, preserved, collected and bequeathed. Will anyone really want my old car? my clothes? my ashes? My books though, I'm confident, will find readers after me.

There are worse vices than buying books, no?