Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An Excerpt

From Over Bremerton's, by E. V. Lucas

“’The prices,’ she said, ‘are marked just inside. They are all net, but if any one bought several books you might knock something off. Don’t ever knock anything off a cheap book.’
‘Be very careful,’ she said, ‘with people who look at the illustrations. Sometimes they pinch the plates.’
‘Whatever you do,’ she said, ‘don’t buy any books.’
‘Keep an eye,’ she said, ‘on the outside shelves.’
‘Don’t let any one,’ she said, ‘stand too long reading.’
‘See that they don’t slip one book into their pocket while they buy another,’ she said.
‘Watch them,’ she said, ‘to see that they don’t rub out our price and put in another themselves.’
That, I think, was her very last counsel. I sank down in a chair in a kind of stupor. I had not been prepared for such revelations of perfidy. I had thought of a second-hand bookshop as being off the main stream of human frailty and temptation; and behold it was the resort of the most abandoned! Is there no natural honesty?”

Daily Dose

From The Genius of Thomas Hardy, edited by Margaret Drabble


"Thinking, for Hardy, involves the whole man; it drains energy and increases pain."

From Hardy's philosophy, by A. O. J. Cockshut

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Not, I Hope, the Last Straw

Went back to work today, after another ruined week of flu. Was it a mistake? Though one would not think it from the frequency with which I lament the need to rise each morning, I am not a good convalescent. Enforced inactivity, specially that which comes with rheumy eyes, shaky hands and a runny nose, maddens me, and I find myself, trapped in pajamas, wandering from room to room, pacing like a caged badger. Beyond tired of my comfy cage, I determined this morning to be up, washed, medicated and out. I felt the breeze on my face and thought the world, if not quite right again, near enough plumb to make a straight line to the bookstore.

I certainly got there alright. And my friends all seemed glad to see me, at first. People are kind, when one comes back after such an absence, or at least they mean to be. My face, I've learned, has few secrets. When I am ill, I look ill. My body likewise betrays me: my gate, never brisk, slows to a shuffle, my posture, never good, shows me older than Egypt when I cough. Solicitous greetings -- from however safe a distance -- drop to concerned whispers when answered by my cheery croak, and whatever shape my face actually assumes when I attempt a smile, must suggest a rictus so grim as to be better out of the light of day, where it evidently conjures waking nightmares in perfect strangers.

"Why aren't you... home?" is not the question one expects to be asked first thing at work, not when the noun at it's end sounds like a suspiciously gentle substitution.

I am nothing if not stubborn, though. However much I might seem to trail sulfur and fresh turned earth at every painful step, and however many times I am suggested better elsewhere, until I have satisfied myself that I am useless, or near enough to being so as to wonder myself why I am upright, I will not go. So I stayed at the bookstore a full nine hours, with an hour's flavorless dinner in the middle, and proved... what?

That I am fool? I don't concede that, even tonight when every symptom held but only so far off has risen up in me with renewed vigor, as if to mock me, and remind me, having been so inexpertly masked, though not to be ignored all day, that it is the flu, not I that knows how long it intends to keep me company. It is to the flu then, again tonight, I am forced to defer. It knows me well enough by now to even risk me going out-of-doors, as It doubtlessly knew it would have me back tonight. "Go on," the flu evidently allowed this morning, "not going anywhere soon." In fact, it seems getting up and out into the fresh air today did only my germs a world of good. No doubt then, it was foolish to go in today to work. I don't know that I worked enough to justify a single dollar I earned at this day's business. My illness was at least past the point where I was likely to infect others, having settled well in, and needing, for the moment, no better home. But by going to the bookstore, where I was so obviously unsuited to my work, and troubling to the sight of even my dearest friends, was not such a fool's errand as it might seem, even to my flu, so much as it was proof of a foolish fondness, a need, in fact, for faces other, brighter, and better suited to daylight than my own. My recovery, I am convinced, required a reminder of life. Common, workaday life, as I was missing it at home, and could not quite remember it anymore, was what I needed to see. That can only sound foolish to those that may not be so dependent as I am on others to show me life's action, to draw me into it's motion, to move me from myself.

Mine is not a vigorous life. I do not hold with much doing. It does not suit me. But because I am already so much alone with my thoughts, in my books, on my backside, like a dreamer in a field of tall flowers, I fear I might cease to notice anything but the general warmth, that I might drowse away not just the dreamer's lazy summer's afternoon, but all my days. Were I not forced, by the necessity of earning my bread, to engage with the world, at least in so far as the world passes my desk on the sales-floor of the bookstore, I genuinely dread the drowsy, wordy, solitary ways in which my days would wander.

Dear A., for whom I am every moment grateful, can do but so much. His responsibility for me extends only so far, and no further. His life, inextricable with mine though it may be, is his own, and must be lived out where it takes him. We travel together, always, and see to each other on the way, but we are not meant to be all and all to each other; that is a fallacy of romance, not a partnership of 26 years and counting. Neither of us would have our life together other than it is; he with his life, and I with mine, and from that, ours together. He may make me soup, and hold my head in his lap when I am ill, or not, and know I will do likewise, always. But his eyes aren't meant to be mine! His senses, feelings, thoughts, beliefs, are his own, and I may draw on them as I need, and he on mine, but I must have some life independent of his to provide, if nothing else, interest, or I do neither of us any good.

As my life is shaped more by books than not, and as my books aren't his, it would not be right then to offer him only these. Who would come home to hear only what I read today? Who would have me just in my library? I would be fit company then for no one, even myself.

I know myself just well enough then to know, far more than dear A. does, I need people. Well or ill, I could live without food, much as I eat too much of it, or without books, though the thought sounds absurd even to me, longer than I can without faces other than my own, voices as familiar, and as strange as the sound of my own, contact not then so much with the world, which I might shun easily enough these days, and more I should think as I get older, but with friends, and strangers, with the beautiful young people who pass me every day and now notice me or not as they need, as they should; it is the right of the young to notice only what and who they need, and with contemporaries, and old friends, and old people, who likewise have the perfect right to ask only the attention of the rest of us for which they still have some need.

I do not think I am a fool, however foolish I might have proved myself today by putting on clothes and going to work. With two friends, I went next door to a new haberdashery. We tried on hats. One of the three of us bought herself two, and I bought a handsome new straw, with a baby blue band. I was told it flattered me. I thought so too.

So, today, let's see... I bought a hat.

Well worth getting out of bed then, though back to bed I'd better go, more fool me for sitting here, so late, so sick, by myself.

Daily Dose

From Through the Woods: The English Woodland -- April to April, by H. E. Bates


"Summer and Autumn fuse into each other imperceptibly, the point of fusion lost in some period of September humidity, in the mild wonder of too-soft days."

From The Heart of Autumn

Monday, September 28, 2009

Entry from a Bourgeois's Journal

Feeling fit enough today for some activity, if not real work, I finally addressed the growing landfill of laundry that has been amassing on our bedroom floor. In less than a week's time, one of my oldest and dearest friends will be here for a visit, by which time I not only ought to be healthy again, but intend that the house should not be in such a state of neglect and disrepair as to shame us. When use has run through all the favorite and cleanest clothes, I find, older favorites, in imperfect repair, tend to work their way up from the bottom of drawers and emerge unsuspected from the backs of closets. It is only when these in turn have been worn and added to the landfill, washed and retrieved from the dryer, that their multiplicity of defects: all their stains and missing buttons, all the holes and imperfect patches, become so obvious, displayed in the basket surrounded by whole garments, as to finally find their way to the trash. We are not, my dear husband and me, so innocent of trend and style that we do not occasionally commend to charity the clean mistakes of momentary enthusiasm past. And as we both have seen our waistlines in better days, and have learned to live with the change, we do not now cling to any reminders of less expansive times, in any hope that these may come again. And yet, it is a fact, and all the more remarkable for our unsentimentality, that we do seem, each laundry come late, to wear out any number of things that seemed only yesterday new. This then, I think, is the way we actually note the cruel passage of time. Looking at my beloved, I see still the same handsome man who won me with that same sly smile. Looking at me, he can not possibly now see the slim boy I was, but some resemblance, perhaps about the eyes, must linger on, as he hasn't had done with me yet. Our life together, our routines and silly pleasures, seem unchanged from what they were. But our socks tell just how long it has been.

Dear A.'s favorite pair, a Mondrian pattern, with black toes, were purchased years ago, from a museum gift-shop, on a business trip to Chicago. He has been retired now from business for some years. We retired those socks, just tonight. The last night he wore them, I saw not one, but nearly all his toes peeping. Those socks had, at last to go. Likewise a favorite nightshirt, (yes, we are those old queens,) among the first we bought together, and worn, between us, in no less now than three beds of our own, in as many cities or more. The seams were gone up nearly the length of one side, making what had been a vent, first a slit, then a scandal. Both elbows were out in each long sleeve. The once heavy cotton had kept this nightshirt unused once but in winter. By the end, I wore it comfortably on all but the hottest summer nights, and had to wear a robe to bed with it when I wore it last, to keep my elbows from freezing. Undershirts and like unmentionables, we discard with some regularity and without undue deliberation, usually when one or the other of us notices holes where they ought not to be, or so complete a failure in the elasticity of a waistband or collar as to make the article more resemble an artifact than a functioning garment. But that nightshirt and those socks, that was a hard thing, letting them go.

More behind-hand even than I usually am, this month I did not read the selection for my book club until the month was nearly out, and only then a day or two before the meeting to which I'd promised to go. When the flu descended again on me, Tuesday night last, and I slept not a wink, I missed not only my Wednesday work, but my meeting as well. The frustration of this, having at last read the damned book, was such that I told my husband I intended to pull on pants and go to book club, no matter how sick I felt. He kindly pointed out I wasn't fit to drive a car, let alone discuss a book. As so the opportunity passed.

The book I'd found, was no longer in my library, and so I'd purchased an inexpensive paperback while I was in Portland, intending to read it while I was down there. I didn't. There were so many other books, of more immediate interest that I had bought that the few hours I actually spent in my hotel room were devoted to them, rather than to The Thief's Journal, by Jean Genet, as I had intended. When I got home, other distractions, new books, the new television season, so many things, crowded Genet out again. And so I finally was forced to reread this favorite of my younger days, at breakneck speed, in basically two sittings.

I well remembering reading my way through Genet, dizzy with the wickedness of him, the poetry of his prose, the sick sophistication of his philosophy, all so new to me then as to make my appetite for his words nearly as insatiable as his own for rough trade, outrage and intellectual sycophants. Later, when Edmund White's magisterial biography was published, with a companion volume, edited by White, of selections from Genet's work, I fell again under the little bastard's spell. Picking him up again after years and years without reading so much as a word, I was glad to find his voice so familiar, and his beauties undimmed. That said, maybe it was something dimmed in my eyes, or that I've grown wearier of shock, but I noted this time how less than god-like Genet's criminals all seemed, how petty their crimes, how stupid, and grubby, and dumb these violent idiots were, how less than sexy their brutality sounded now, how painfully pointless Genet's abasement now seemed to me to be. I did not judge his art to be any less, but his life, frankly, embarrassingly, bored me a little.

Perhaps I have lived just long enough, known just so many men devoted to the pursuit of lovers inferior to them in every sense, seen too many low bars, and smelled too many bohemians, perhaps I have been too long too content, to ever again read Genet with the same thrill and enthusiasm I remember so well feeling at eighteen, or twenty five. The revolution in his style I can and do still find dazzling. I can think of few enough writers encountered by my so much younger self, who might still make me breathless at their daring, and spellbound by the beauty of their prose. But I can conceive of fewer still, among the favorites of my youth, I am less likely now to ever feel the need to read again. For me, I think, Genet is done.

The fault is in the reader here, not in the writer. There are great artists whose work survives best by being taken up in each generation at an early age. I think, in short, I am now too old, perhaps now too American and comfortable and fastidious as well, for Jean Genet's anarchism. It seems sad to me now. Perhaps the sadness too, is just mine. But Genet doesn't need me.

The memory of what Genet was to that younger man I once was, is enough now, I suspect. It's time I let him go. Genet doesn't need me.

(Now did I really just suggest a simile between Jean Genet and socks?!!! Somewhere, I feel the lingering contempt of the shade of Genet. Sorry, Jean, it's late, and I'm ill, but I deserved that. Love ya, sweetheart, honest I do.)

Daily Dose

From Shakespeare, by Anthony Burgess


"I propose to indulge myself in an onomastic fancy that the hard-headed reader is welcome to ignore. (...) The whole of this paragraph is very unsound."

From Chapter 4, Marriage

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Best Loved Aloud

There are literary forms that pass, if not entirely out of use, then into something only vaguely recognizable, but still possible, as such. For example, think of the riposte, as perfected by Rostand's Cyrano, and now a feature of many a Rap duet, or of the epitaph, once among the highest compliments one poet could pay another, and now practiced, almost exclusively, as a regular segment, with appropriate quotation, by Larry King and the nightly entertainment reviews on television. The narrative, or story poem, among the oldest forms certainly, and continuously popular down almost to our own day, would seem to have all but disappeared from the English speaking culture, though I think a case could still be made for it's survival in the Country Western Song.

When I was but a little bumpkin in the cultural outback of these United States, there was still a tradition of amateur entertainments, usually performed for civic and fraternal organizations and usually undertaken to commemorate some national holiday, like the 4th of July, or Lincoln's Birthday -- as we still called it then -- or to mark the coming of Christmas, in a setting not wholly, or exclusively consecrated to Christian piety, like the Scouts, or the Kiwanas Club, or in my case, The Grange. For any not acquainted with that last, The Grange, in rural America, was once a quite powerful and popular organization, organized after the Civil War, as a fraternal fellowship, and lobby, for the farmers, their families and dependents. By the time I came into The Grange, it's membership and influence had already waned, and there was, even then, already something almost painfully quaint in it's secret ritual, props and officers and rather threadbare pomps. I loved it, dearly. Every Grange Hall then, besides a meeting hall, a kitchen and space for pancake suppers and the like, had a small stage. This had a use in some of the more elaborate tableau in which the ritual delighted, but those little stages were also, for many a country boy and girl, the first experience of theatrical performance. Pageants, contests, raffles, skits and sing-songs were regularly staged on those narrow boards, and recitations still featured as a recognized and expected form of entertainment there. Besides such sacred texts of American history as the Preamble to the Constitution, The Gettysburg Address, and Washington's Farewell to the Troupes, the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley, John Greenleaf Whittier, Stephen Vincent Benet, Eugene Field, and Ella Wheeler Wilcox, all had regular airings there. If most of the names of those poets have gone to dust, it is because they wrote, often as not, the kind of poetry meant to be heard aloud, poetry for occasion rather than solitary reading, poems of patriotism and civic pride, historical poems, public poems, story poems.

I myself received some of my first and most treasured applause for a recitation of Whittier's "Barbara Frietchie," which I can still do most of, without reference to the text, to this very day.

"Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn..."

I am proud to say that I am far from being the most notable performer of this poem in the last century. In a recent joint biography of FDR and Churchill, I was thrilled to find a surprising anecdote of the two great leaders. Out for drive and coming to the town of Frederick, Maryland, Roosevelt started the poem from memory, and Churchill finished it likewise, every verse!

Barbara Frietchie was a real woman. At age ninety-five, she stood in the street in Frederick, and waved the American flag to block, or at least shame, the advance of Stonewall Jackson's rebel army. Whittier took some liberty with the facts, but captured indelibly the spirit of the woman, the moment, and added a benediction, typical of the poet, in two lines, near the end of the poem:

"Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall's bier."

The rhetoric and cadence of that poem has long since learnt the poem to a number of devastating parodies. And it would now perhaps be difficult to find an audience that would be moved to such easy tears as once were shed over it. I myself can not read it aloud, still, without a misty quaver, but perhaps that has as much to do with the memory of my beaming proud Grandmother Craft, watching me perform it on the little stage of the London Village Grange Hall, as it does with the memory of Barbara Frietchie. No matter.

On my most recent trip to Portland, on my final, quick pass through Powell's before I drove home, I had thirty dollars worth of store-credit yet to spend and was determined to leave only after I had exhausted it completely. I gathered up a few inexpensive books I'd passed over the night before, and made one last tour of the poetry section. In the anthologies, I noticed a thick, dark spine and pulled the book out, to read the title better. Best Loved Story Poems, selected by the unfortunately named Walter E. Thwing, and published, in 1941, by Garden City Publishing Co., Inc., I saw that book, editor and publisher were all long since relegated to history. At only five bucks, and in fine shape, the old book was added to my purchase without a second thought.

Struck for the second time in less than a month by a pernicious and violent influenza, I've spent my second sleepless night in a row, huddled pitifully in my favorite, ragged armchair, reading from this old book. Other old friends from childhood, like Longfellow's "Evangeline," Scott's "Lochinvar," and "The Highwayman" of Alfred Noyes have kept me company, but in these pages I have found many other stories and incidents, histories unknown to me, like Tennyson's "The Defense of Lucknow," and places into which I might never otherwise have ventured, like Wordsworth's "Hart-Leap Well." Reading out these poems, in even my sick, cold croak, has kept me warm, and entertained more hours now than I anticipated. If not every poem herein deserves to be better known, and if not every poet, even among the greatest included here, might wish his or her reputation to rest on just these tales and sermons, I don't think it matters much now. When was the last time anyone read out John Townsend Trowbridge's "Widow Brown's Christmas," as I did, with considerable pleasure, tonight?

If these stories and poems have lost their power to entertain a wider audience, it seems that for one reader at least, just tonight, there's nothing quite the equal for passing an uncomfortable and heavy hour, as might be had in the old fat book of story poems, "selected by Walter E. Thwing," now of blessed memory.

"The little toy dog is covered with dust,
But sturdy and staunch he stands..."

Daily Dose

From The Colored Lands, by G. K. Chesterton


"There can be comparatively little question that the place ordinarily occupied by dreams in literature is peculiarly unreal and unsatisfying. When the hero tells us that 'last night he dreamed a dream,' we are quite certain from the perfect and decorative character of the dream that he made it up at breakfast."

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Enemies and Friends of Sam

Among my purchases from my last raid on Powell's in Portland, I came away with with Peter Quennell's beautifully illustrated book, Samuel Johnson: his friends and enemies. Published in 1973, by American Heritage Press, this is yet another of those lovely picture books, quite popular at the time, that consist of well edited and annotated reproductions of art and portraiture of the period reviewed, with what really is more a series of related essays on the subject, than a biography, by a popular scholar of the day. I dearly love these books. Before computers really revolutionized publishing, and color reproduction, the making of these handsome tribute volumes to the established greats of English and American literature and art, must have been a rather difficult and time-consuming business. Think of the necessity of accessing, collecting and securing the rights to reproduce drawings, caricatures, paintings, illustrations, newspapers, manuscripts, photographs of the homes and the keepsakes, the few surviving odds and ends from a particular author's life, and doing so from the collections of museums, universities, libraries and private collections, without the aid of any search engine, database, or online bibliography. Yet, for whatever reason, for a happy period in the late sixties through the middle seventies, so far as I can judge, publishers in the UK and America produced volumes just like this on Twain, Austen, Lamb, Kipling, Dickens, and on and on.

The abundance of illustration throughout the text, and the regular use of color illustration -- though sparing by today's standards -- made these books expensive for the time, further limiting what must already have been a fairly limited audience. The writers hired to provide the text, and who, in some cases I think, even edited and provided the captions for the pictures, were consistently popular authors themselves; critics and biographers like Quennell and David Cecil (who did books just like this on Austen and Lamb,) or novelists like Kingsley Amis, who did a volume on Kipling. In some cases, a famous name, like Margaret Drabble, would edit such a volume, as she did The Genius of Thomas Hardy, providing an introduction, and presumably approving the rest of the text, which consisted then of scholarly essays, each by an invited academic, on a particular period or aspect of the novelist's life or work. The commemoration of a centennial of an author's birth, or death, might provide the perfect opportunity or excuse for such a book, or, as was the naturally the case with the centennial of the death of Charles Dickens, any number of such illustrated biographies, by one or many hands.

Peter Quennell was a popular and established critic, who had started his career as something of a poet-prodigy as early as 1922, being published while still a student at Oxford. By 1973, when he published this book on Johnson, Quennell had already written often and well about many of the major and minor literary and historical personages in 18th and early 19th Century England. Over the years, I've come to trust Quennell the historian and critic, and have read and come to own probably a dozen books either written or edited by him. His biography of the young Alexander Pope, for instance, helped me enormously to understand and appreciate the poet when I was, rather desperately, trying to catch up enough with the studies of a friend who was, at the time, writing about Pope's "Essay on Man." (I don't know that I ever became sufficiently well versed in the subject to quite follow my friend's academic arguments, but I am still grateful for push he provided me to the poetry of Pope.)

Reading Quennell's Samuel Johnson; his friends and enemies, I find Quennell did not actually much like the Doctor, and while I would not class him among Johnson's "enemies," this book hardly puts him among Johnson's "friends," either. This is dissapointing. Quennell seems to accept every mid-Twentieth Century, liberal cliche about Johnson's personal and literary ponderousness, dismissing, for instance, most of the popular essays from The Rambler, The Adventurer and The idler as being unread if not "now" unreadable. Yet Paul Fussell, in easily the best book on Johnson's style I've ever read or am likely ever to read, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing, had, as recently to Quennell's book as 1971, already demolished much of the accepted, negative critical opinion of the time about these great essays, and re-established, I think, Johnson's proper place in English literature. (Fussell's book does not appear in Quennell's bibliography.) I think it safe to say that Fussell's estimation has proved to be the more accurate and lasting reading.

Whatever my disappointment with Quennell's somewhat lazy reading of Johnson, his book still has value for me, and I'm glad I bought it, and read it. If I keep it in my library for no other or better reason than the wonderful illustration, I am entirely satisfied.

Daily Dose

From The Dream King: Ludwig II of Bavaria, by Wilfred Blunt


"Many, too, were the books that the King gave to his friends; for he himself was a voracious reader and would often read through the night until dawn. 'Reading is my greatest pleasure,' he told Wagner, '-- one in which I really indulge to excess; for even when I am driving through the loveliest mountain valleys I cannot do without it,'"

From the chapter, King of the Alps

Friday, September 25, 2009

Faerie Tale: The Breathless Credulity of One Piers Dudgeon

There was a period in scholarly and popular biography, just at about the middle of the last century, when the methods and affectations of Freudianism seemed to derange even the most respectable authors, sending them off in embarrassingly fruitful search of unresolved "complexes," previously unsuspected "conditions," and labyrinthine explorations of "motive." That all this psychoanalysis was being done to the undefended dead, that the very premise of science would be pulled from beneath the Master's feet before the century was over, and that the biographical practitioners of all this amateur shrinking tended themselves to not be shrinks, have all contributed to the failure of nearly all the resulting biographies to last beyond their generation. Even so great a biographer as Leon Edel, when I've had occasion to reread a bit of his monumental life of Henry James, brings a blush of sympathetic embarrassment now, when he emphatically concludes from a mix of fact, fiction and Freud. (Where are the Gods of the last century gone? Freud, Marx... only Einstein still stands, and the comic, modern quantum mechanics still merrily work to undermine the colossus as I write.)

Popular biography, at least, has stepped back from the giddier heights of speculation, and using resources made newly accessible by a world smaller thanks to computers, seems again largely content to get back to cases; fuller quotation from original sources is popular now, anecdote as a means to amuse as well as explain has come back, and not every biographer feels quite the same pressing need to write the "definitive" life. Even the brief biography has come back into vogue! And all, or nearly all, to the good, I should think.

But as the pressure to analyze and define the noble dead has lessened, and the urge to celebrate and report accurately has, to a heartening extent, returned, the absence of a predominating critical matrix has also allowed for a return of the daffy crank. Never quite driven from the field, near the last century's end, the truly goofy theorists: the Baconites, and Spiritualists, the spinners of conspiracy, and the darkly dreaming faerie-folk that haunt the groves of lesser academe and spin their endless theoretical asymmetries in the damp, neglected corners of self-publishing, seemed to have at last been driven back to their nests and cracks. There was a time, not so very long ago, when it seemed at least no major American or English publisher could print a truly mad, defamatory biography without being publicly embarrassed in the literary press. Nazi apologists, tabloid hacks, and other such scum, should they actually manage to land a book contract with a major house, were regularly exposed, their books withdrawn, their publishers chastened.

Without making too much of it, it seems worth noting that the crazies seem to be making some headway again, finding their way between respectable looking hardcovers, from previously unseen imprints of otherwise upstanding publishers. The latest example of lunatic biographical speculation to come my way, Piers Dudgeon's Neverland: J. M. Barrie, the du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan, was such an unsuspected bit of flummery, looking as it does like an entirely professional piece of critical biography, from the unknown imprint, Pegasus Books, of the great W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., I took it home without thinking that in my hands I held a defining example of the kind of sinister silliness that might more appropriately have seen print from the haymakers at New Falcon Publications, the paperback purveyors of the delicious nuttiness of Robert Anton Wilson.

Poor, impotent ol' Barrie, once high among the most popular writers in English, the undeniable darling of children's literature, the undisputed master of Neverland, since at least the publication, in 1979, of Andrew Birkin's J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, has had his sad, virginal preoccupation with little boys analyzed, anatomized and most cruelly exposed as a neurotic, almost certainly pedophile flaw. It is impossible, in this post-Freudian time, not to see Barrie's adoption and exploitation of those unhappy orphans, George, Jack, Peter and the lot, however well intended, as, well... creepy. Little good it did any of them, it seems, even Barrie, now he's dead and his every affection, and every word, subject to double entendre.

Even having myself read with pleasure quite a bit of Barrie's oeuvre, Birkin's book, and another, more recent biography besides, nothing could have prepared me for the wicked, hilarious, gormless biography written by Piers Dudgeon. His previous biographies, it seems, besides Daphne herself, were of such glorious, romantic hacks as Catherine Cookson and Barbara Taylor Bradford! (Anyone in search of a safe giggle, ought to try the sample of that last biography thoughtfully provided by Amazon. Pretty much a perfect match of subject and style, there.) So, just to quickly summarize this latest effort, it is Dudgeon's contention, based, so far as I can understand it, on having taken tea with Daphne du Maurier while editing a book with her, years ago, that Barrie was a devilish hypnotist, much on the model of George du Maurier's Svengali, and that Barrie's evil influence extended throughout the du Maurier clan, corrupting generations, extending well beyond the grave, sending any number of that unfortunate family to depression, suicide, and insensibility! Seriously, that is what the man says. I have to confess, with no little shame, this penny-dreadful nonsense was richly entertaining, though obviously fiction of the lowest kind. I read every word.

Had the publisher seen fit to call the book what it so obviously is, I could not really object to it's publication. I enjoyed it. But as both publisher and author would seem to insist that this is a biography rather than the rather filthy-minded faerie-tale it so obviously is, I can't help but condemn it, if only here and in the bookstore, as a particularly grotesque example of biographical fraud, and yet another recent instance of a major publisher, presumably professional editors and the like, failing to meet even the minimum standard of laughibility for nonfiction. Even poor ol' J. M. Barrie doesn't deserve this.

As for Mr. Dudgeon, I am prepared to say that I am now something of a fan. On the evidence of just the one book, and the little excerpts from his others that I found online, I don't know that I will be able to resist reading on. I can't say that he's any kind of legitimate biographer, or that his style is anything less than awful, but his absolute confidence in his own vision, and his evident, credulous devotion to rather middling authors, and to a dark nursery understanding of the world, does rather endear him to me. What fun it would be to have him out for a drink and bit of gossip. What wouldn't the man say?! Sadly though, my experience of such wide-eyed dears is that they do tend to go on too long. And I don't think he would appreciate the inevitable giggling. Still, what wouldn't he say about old Daphne's suppressed papers? J. M.'s magnetic eyes? What was just too awful too be included in his mad little book?!

Best not to speculate.

Daily Dose

From Great English Essays: From Bacon to Chesterton, edited by Bob Blaisdell


"And I think that when a blackbird chanced to sing in the upper branches it was as if some angelic being had dropped down out of the sky into the green translucent cloud of leaves, and seeing the child's eager face looking up had sung a little song of his own celestial country to please her."

From Her Own Village, by W. H. Hudson

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Perfect Hour

I rarely get to lunch before two in the afternoon. This suits me fine. The later I eat, the likelier it is that the day will go that much faster and I will get home that much sooner. I know that this is irrational and without any basis physical reality, yet I believe it completely. No matter when I am scheduled then, I try to hold my lunch off as long as I can without growing faint, a most unlikely possibility, or making a mess of my own or anyone else's assignments. There are days though, when I am grateful to go when I'm expected to. Sometimes I am simply too hungry to wait. Other times, I simply need the break from my job. Today was such a day.

It wasn't as if anything regrettable happened; there were no unreasonable sellers, or impossible customers. There is simply such a volume of used books coming in just now, as they tend to at the end of summer, and so few of us at the Used Books Desk, that the unprocessed inventory has started to swamp us. It begins to seem impossible to catch up. Added to the books we are buying, are the books coming back to the desk, old and unsold books, that have to be assigned new prices, transferred or clearanced. The persons responsible for managing the inventory in their sections tend to pull books, new and used, only in anticipation of surges in new inventory arriving. In recent weeks, they have been getting ready for the holiday books which have already begun to come in. As these adjustments to inventory have never been done any more systematically than this, the used books we get back seem always to come at the exact periods when our used buying increases, staff are either on vacation or off sick, and our work, already fairly frantic, becomes manic. It is, frankly, exhausting.

An hour away from all this, to eat a taco, and read a bit of history, seems a perfect heaven. Coming at last, regrettably, to the last volume of John Richard Green's magisterial Victorian book, A History of the English People, I wanted nothing so much as to read and eat in peace. But I had forgotten just how crowded the eateries along The Ave. can be at the more usual hours for lunch, and having neglected to pack myself a lunch today, I found I had no choice but to wade right into the crowds and join the general struggle to find a table. Luck was with me though. I found a table, cleaned it off with napkins, and settled in to read and eat.

Only in in this, the tenth volume of his history, does Green really allow himself a moment's undisguised, and typically Victorian enthusiasm for the glory that was, and was assumed always to be, the British Empire. It was touching to read the passage when he finally burst in innocent pleasure. "Civilization" was what he celebrated, the export of law, efficient bureaucracy, education, technology, a common, English, language, etc. It was endearingly naive. Englishmen of Green's remarkable generation really did believe they were witness to a dawning Golden Age. Green, I think, can be forgiven his presumption. I can not think of another historian of the period who was, in the main, less of a jingo, more even tempered and fair, and more willing to examine the implications of history for commoner and king alike. And the amazing labor of having produced such a comprehensive and satisfying history, with basically none of the modern conveniences of reference -- Green's health at various points in the writing and research requiring him to retire to the warmer climes of Italy, taking his library and boxes with him on ship, carriage and cart -- makes Green's History a fit monument to all that was best in that most productive, and optimistic age.

Settling down then to read Green to the end, I was disconcerted to find someone looming up on the other side of my lunch. A young man, tall as a redwood, dressed in basketball shorts and a hooded sweatshirt, politely asked if he might share my table, as there were none open elsewhere. I consented, of course, but with some resentment. The last thing I wanted just then was either company, conversation, or the distraction of some giant boy messily eating a burrito and chatting loudly on his cellphone. When he put down his tray and bent himself into the chair opposite, his impossibly long legs extended out the other side. Even with his enormous feet tucked back under his chair, his great, naked knees projected out under my left elbow. I concentrated on my book and my lunch and tried my best to ignore him.

I was glad to see that he seemed politely disinterested in me, being wholly occupied with eating the two massive burritos he had before him. I admit, I could not resist peeking over my book to witness surreptitiously this remarkable feat, which he accomplished with the minimum of fuss; each massy weight of rice, beans and meat, etc., being rather daintily handled, and yet consumed in what could not have been more than ten minutes and roughly the same number of bites. I was reminded of seeing a grizzly eat a magnificent, adult salmon in a gulp.

Only when he'd eaten both his burritos and returned from the drinks station with yet another giant cup of soda, did he settle down to study his school books. He was quite careful with these, arranging his text in such a way as to never violate the invisible line that divided his half of the table from mine. When I too had finished my comparatively modest repast, I allowed myself a look at his book. I'd assumed it would be some dull business of statistics, sociology or the like. I was tickled to read, albeit up-side-down and imperfectly, the names of Augustus and Pompey! I could not resist intruding on his studies, and asked if he was a student of history?

"Not really, but I need to make up some credits."

Not discouraged by this answer, I pressed him a little further. What did he think of these Romans he was reading about? Did their experience speak in any way to his own?

He said he found the Romans to be brave and ambitious, but ultimately foolish in their ambitions, or words to that effect. When I asked him, "How so?" his reply was wonderful. After a moment's reflection, he said,

"They never bothered asking anybody if they wanted to be Roman. Most people didn't, I'd guess."

And there, in wonderfully few words, is the whole history of Empire! from the ancient world, to the British, to our own misadventures in the East.

Coming back to the store after my excellent lunch, in excellent if unanticipated company, I faced my own petty preoccupations with a renewed faith in education, the rising generation, and the lessons of history.

A perfect lunch hour.

Daily Dose

From Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, & France 1765 -- 1766, edited by Frank Brady


"Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull."

Boswell quoting Dr. Johnson, Sollacaro, 22 -- 27 October 1765

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dover Days

In the ongoing struggle to maintain some relevance to the increasingly small number of regular readers who still come regularly to the bookstore, or to any bookstore, our manager has hit upon the rather novel idea of generating sales by creating, from bargain books, occasions and sales unique to the bookstore. He has, since before he became a manager, been the primary buyer for our Bargain Books tables, regularly shopping not just the usual catalogues, but traveling, actually all over the country, to warehouses and remainder-distributors, looking for good books that can be sold at exceptionally good prices, and with a superior margin of profit for the bookstore. He's really quite remarkably good at this. Our Bargain Books continue to work as well or better than ever for us. With Used Books, these discount books now provide us with our best resource for maintaining the interest and diversity of our inventory, even in the face of the ever-declining sales for general books in bricks and mortar stores, like ours, that still insist on offering our customers as representative and various a selection of titles as the best independent bookstores of the past. I, for one, am convinced that the survival of independent bookstores depends on just such adaptation to new economic realities without compromising the original mission of what a great bookstore can and should do for the customers and communities served -- namely, stock and sell the widest possible range of good books. Our manager's latest inspiration? Dover Days.

For any that don't know them, or remember them only from the occasional sad rack at the back of an art supplies store, Dover Publications is actually a grand old American company, since 1941, publishing affordable reprints of the classics of literature, science, mathematics, music and art, as well as children's books, educational materials and the clip-art and coloring books most people would recognize immediately as theirs. The Dover Thrift Editions are, for many younger readers, the first copies of great books that they can afford. The bookstore where I work carries the whole range of Dover books, but there is little emphasis on them as such. Having found a huge selection of discounted, remaindered books from this publisher, our manager decided to buy pretty much the lot. Our publicity and promotions people designed some handsome signage, put up an attractive window, and then nearly the whole lobby of the store was given over to this sale. What's more, tables running the length of the department were given over to discounted Dover books, racks of Dover books were added, great boxes of coloring books, books of paper dolls, and music scores were put out, in short, the whole New & Used Books Department was given over to a celebration of all things Dover.

The enthusiasm with which this sale was greeted by our regular customers has been very heartening. It has been, from the perspective of the Used Books Buying Desk, where I sit every day next to the lobby, a wonderful thing to watch perfectly respectable adults squealing with delight to find book after discounted book of paper dolls, to watch people who may or may not actually have children, collecting up multiple little volumes of temporary tattoos, books of postcards, coloring books, literature, art, music... For many of our customers, this sale seems to represent a rediscovery of not only Dover, but of that innocent enthusiasm for collecting that the prices of most new books now precludes. I don't know that I've seen one person shopping these tables leave with just one book.

Even though I seldom if ever buy paperback books myself, even I was not immune to the temptation of those tables. In the dizzy midst of so many classics, my eye was drawn inevitably to Great English Essays: From Bacon to Chesterton, edited by Bob Blaisdell. Already a bargain at $3.50, now on sale for only $1.98, how could I not? And a very good collection of essays it is, too. In it I found many old friends, but also essays unknown to me, by authors I've never really read, like W. H. Hudson, writing about a wonderful old family dog, and Alice Meynell's delightful and wise essay on children, "The Unready."

That is the glory of a publisher like Dover, the possibility of finding old things new, and at prices affordable to anyone. How many lost treasures are to be recovered from these tables and racks?

Giving these bargain books an unusual prominence, making an occasion of remainders, was a brilliant idea, and one that will be repeated whenever the opportunity arises again. Not only is this a profitable and affordable means of drawing customers in, this sale best represents the true spirit of independent bookselling. Improvisational, entertaining, abundant and diverse, the materials of Dover Days are the stuff of dreams, and damned good business, too.

Daily Dose

From English Diaries & Journals, by Kate O'Brien


"... I sate half an hour afraid to pass a cow. The cow looked at me and I looked at the cow, and whenever I stirred the cow gave over eating."

Quoted from the Grasmere Journal

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Good People, Good Pie

Driving down to Portland for the regional booksellers' annual wake, ramble and roll-call, I had occasion to be reminded that living as I choose to do in a civilized place, i. e. a city -- where I might add, yet again, just for emphasis, most Americans now in fact do live -- I am exposed to the rougher growls of the American vox populi only via television and in the opinion pages of what now passes for a newspaper in Seattle. Here, the braying of asses on the Wild Right can be, if not ignored, turned down, skimmed over, and treated with due contempt as an all but entirely external annoyance to my daily life. In Seattle, I can go days on end, even working in retail, without a single significant confrontation with the ignorance, superstition, racism and homophobia that characterizes the daily intercourse of the America I now see only at a more comfortable distance. It is my choice, having grown up in a small and correspondingly small-minded place, to keep just such distance between my sanity and the shouts and murmurs of the bumptious hoydens I once knew as neighbors. Had I not made the move, I might long since have required medication. As it is, when I am forced to venture out into the country, if just in transit between cities, I feel myself vulnerable again to something of the familiar despair I knew in youth, and I wonder that anyone not utterly indifferent to the progress of civilization can survive in the vast, intellectually barren, morally schizophrenic middle-places through which one must pass to get from here to there in this country. As I passed on the freeway through farm country and strip-mall developments, I allowed myself a vague nostalgia for the cleaner air and slower pace of the country life I knew as a child. Stopping for lunch at a dinner somewhere in Cowslick County, I think it was, in the southern-most part of the state, I was charmed to find a waitress who called me "Honey," who filled my cup without asking, and who handed me a desert menu crowded with excellent pie, never thinking I might not want desert after an excellent lunch of turkey and gravy on an open-faced sandwich. After that meal, I was feeling very much like a prodigal returned. How nice the waitress was. How endearingly ugly the decor of the diner had been. How good the pie. But, back in my car, full and content and feelin' all country sweet, I had only to go a mile again to see a billboard, the size of the Wailing Wall, that reminded me of the true price of that pie.

"I Will Keep My God, My Guns, and My Gold. You Keep the Change."

My parents have made great friends with a couple their age whose religious and political enthusiasms could not be more unlike. "Good people," in the phrase of my childhood, this retired couple supplement their meager pensions by working the same auctions my parents frequent, and by driving the Amish to town for visits to the doctor, shopping and the like. The elderly foursome regularly dine out together, and their friends have invited my parents along to hear gospel concerts, which they enjoyed, and to church, which they did not. There is a strong lesson in tolerance to be taken from my parents making such good friends of these "good people." And perhaps, in putting that phrase in quotes, I do them an insult they don't deserve. By the standards of the place where my parents live, it is the other couple who have shown the larger spirit, by not bullying my parents more about their failure to be saved. And by those same standards, I am sure that these friends would, without asking, do anything for my parents that they might; actions being the better standard of faith, still, even among the most bellicose Christians in such a place. Any opportunity to do a good turn, in my experience, is more often taken than not in such places, even in the absence of common communion. That is what I remember as being best about not only the people who raised me, but about the people amongst whom I was raised.

What then was it that was so bad about being in such a place, with such people, that I felt the necessity, at all of eighteen, to be well and permanently away?

Talking with my parents on the phone last Sunday, my mother, in a confidential whisper she employs most often when telling something good of my father, told me of a lunch he'd been to that past week with his friend and friends of his friend, including the minister of the friends' church. The men had convened at some humble, local eatery, more for company, or "fellowship" as it is called there, than to any larger purpose. And as they all, with the exception of the much younger minister, share much the same history, in the invariable phrase employed in the local weekly paper to describe any social gathering of more than three people, "a good time was had by all." That is, until the conversation turned, as it always will among old men, to politics, and the sorry state of things in general. Now, my father knew full well the company he kept, and being a polite person, he sipped his coffee and said very little, while his friend and the rest went on and on about the terrible times in which we live, the dishonesty of politicians, and the degeneracy of the Republic. Living all his life in that small place, my father knows how to keep himself to himself. Only when the conversation, as such conversations in such places, among white men, will and do, turned from "that man in the White House," to "the nigger in the woodpile," and this, and worse, not only went unchallenged by any of the "good people" present, but was endorsed by the preacher, did my father speak up.

"The man's blood is as red as yours, remember," my good father told them, "and you ought not to talk that way, about anyone, let alone this man. He is the President of the United States, whatever you may think of him. Remember that."

That was all. He did not press the point. It isn't his way to argue with his friends. My mother told me though, "Your father was none too popular after that." She said that with pride, I should add.

All the discussion among the media professionals, left and right, as to the possibility that racism may motivate or at least contribute to the criticism shouted at the President, even recently in a joint session of The United States Congress, during a presidential address, seems to me to be so willfully disingenuous as to be laughable, in the face of what I know of even the best of the "good people," out there in the in-between of America. Even the devout, the decent, and the most respectable, white men, left to talk among themselves, still talk as they did when I was an embarrassed boy of ten, and I am ashamed again, as I was then, to think these people are Americans.

I am proud though, now, that I have lived to see a day when the majority of Americans elected a black man president. I am even more proud to be able to say, that my elderly white father, his father having once been a member of the Klan, not only voted for the man, but shamed the men who still assumed that no one at that luncheon table might challenge the ugly, violent ignorance with which they spoke of President Obama. Rather than listen to such hatefulness, I moved well away. My parents stayed, as that place was the only one they've ever known. Change, it seems, can indeed come, even there.

As for me, though I've arranged my life in such a way that I need not worry that I will ever have to risk much in defending my opinions, I'm pretty confident I can do so when the need arises. I owe my life to such good people.

Daily Dose

From The Thrales of Streatham Park, by Mary Hyde


"If I had money enough, what would I do? Perhaps if you and master did not hold me, I might go to Cairo, and down the Red Sea to Bengal, and take a ramble in India."

From Johnson's Letters (417)

Monday, September 21, 2009


As we left England, fifteen years ago or so, after our only trip to date, I picked up a couple of last books in the airport. Now, I'd already shipped a box of books home, and my suitcase, when we came through U. S. Customs later, caused some consternation when I hefted it up on the counter. Thud. When told that books accounted for the unusual weight -- one could do such things back then without additional fees -- the Customs officer gave me a most skeptical look. We'd also been to Amsterdam, you see, so I wasn't surprised when he starting thumbing through each book, no doubt thinking that in one of them at least he was going to find a brick of hashish. He didn't, of course. Just books. Many, many books.

"Guess you like to read?" said the bewildered American Customs man.


The books purchased at the airport, just to read on the long, long, flight home, I bought just because they were so obviously, completely English. Both were celebrity paperbacks. Robert Morley had died not long before. His son, critic Sheridan Morely, I think it was, had written a biography. I read that first. Robert Morley, in all his glorious orotundity, in addition to being an instantly recognizable, and reliably brilliant, character actor, had a well-earned reputation as a raconteur. I haven't seen the book since, but I remember laughing out loud while I read it. Lovely man.

The other paperback I bought that day was by another English comic actor, one with whom I was at the time considerably less well acquainted. I don't know that I'd ever seen his movies, or television appearances, or heard any of his radio shows. In fact, I don't know that I'd ever really heard of Kenneth Williams before I bought his Diaries that day. I think I must just have trusted the jacket copy, which spoke to his great wit, and to the fact that Williams had been a friend to Joe Orton, whose life and work fascinated me, and whose own diaries I'd fairly recently read. I suspect I bought Kenneth Williams diaries because Orton was in them.

Williams had dies some years before, in 1988, quite possibly by his own hand -- the coroner declaring "an open verdict" on his overdose from barbiturates -- and his diaries had been published posthumously, to considerable controversy. He'd kept a diary nearly all his adult life, right up to the day he died. In addition to the often waspish private judgments passed therein on fellow actors and celebrities, Williams' diaries were a record of his most private reflections on his own, quite painfully chaste, homosexuality. Reading his diaries on that plane-ride, I discovered that Williams was an amazingly erudite, and funny man, as well as quite a eloquent critic, and a touchingly unhappy person.

Subsequently, I have watched and listened to quite a bit of Kenneth Williams, thanks largely to the Internet, and specifically, and while I don't know that I will ever quite describe myself as a fan of the "Carry On" movies in which he made his greatest fame, I am most certainly now a firm fan of Kenneth Williams. Brilliant chat show guest. Outrageous performer. Williams himself, in his diaries at least, could be quite dismissive of the broad burlesque of those pictures, but I will say, having rented and watched a number of them from the great Scarecrow Video, here in Seattle, the best in all of the ones I've seen was always the surreal camp of Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey. I can honestly say, I never saw the like. Beyond stereotypical, these queens raved and shrieked through low comedy after low comedy, and in Williams case particularly, did it at such an insanely fast, and funny pace as to slip the surly bonds of earth entirely, winging into the highest constellation of camp stars. Williams voice was a most remarkable instrument; capable of drawling a sneer out to impossible lengths, rocketing from impossibly plumby depths, to a pitched cockney squeal that broke the sound barrier. He could wring a laugh out of the worst joke with just the flair a nostril, or a jerk of the jaw, and he made a high art of eye-rolling. I've never seen a queen behave so archly on film, and yet be, always, somehow, endearing.

Home tonight, sick again with, if not the Swine Flu, something certainly no less swinish, I watched a remarkable BBC television film, staring the brilliantly adaptable Michael Sheen, as Kenneth Williams. Kennith Williams: Fantabulosa! is yet another of those BBC bio-pics that, on what appears to be a quite limited budget, manages to be both literate, accurate, and briskly entertaining. Passing artfully between scenes of the painful isolation of Williams' antiseptic private life, as detailed in cleverly acid voice-over quotations from the melancholy chronicles of Williams' Diaries, and set pieces from his career in comedy, the portrait is equally funny and moving. The script is a wonderful thing, but it is the performance of Michael Sheen as Williams that provides the depth of feeling. The imitation, specially of Williams remarkable voice, is spot on, as is the recreation of his public persona -- capturing every nuance of eagerness to be loved in even Williams' most hysterical waspishness, in every filthy if harmless hint of queer superiority to every dirty joke. Sheen uses all of Williams stock phrases and bits of business, but to a purpose beyond straightforward imitation, as a means of exposing the panic and fury that always threatened to make Williams unemployable and which kept him from exploring even the few opportunities for genuine connection with another man that he allowed himself. Approached in a cruising park, Sheen as Williams thrills to the touch of a stranger's hand on his knee, but then immediately resumes the mask of the harmless old poofter, and jokes about the weather. Sheen never lets an opportunity slip to show that even the famous laugh, for instance, came dangerously close to being a scream. It is a performance Williams himself might well have found shocking, even embarrassing, but which does him great honor in finally reconciling, in a way the man never could himself, the donnish, tortured queer intellectual of the diaries with the camp entertainer who endeared himself to millions with his masterful, and merciless command of every inflection and gesture in public. At moments of specially vulnerability, Sheen's jaw twists and his head lolls back on his long neck, as if in anticipation of a blow. It is a pitiable response to what, just as likely, might have been a kiss.

I don't know that I could read those diaries again, having watched Sheen's performance, without wishing, as Williams' friend Orton does in the film, that Our Ken might have had "a good fuck" now and again, just to know he could, without hopelessly damaging himself or losing the only love he really came to count on, from his audience. Sad, that. He might have been as happy as he made all of us.

Daily Dose

From The Selected Letters of Lord Byron, edited with an introduction by Jacques Barzan


"He is a good man, with some poetical elements in his chaos..."

From a letter to Thomas Moore, June 1st, 1818

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reading the Ladies of Creative Writing

There is something so particularly annoying in bad contemporary poetry as to make me more resentful of the time spent on it than of that wasted on almost any other reading. I can not quite explain this any way other than by first admitting how much I like the look of poetry in modern paperbacks. The style is to print these poems, lines double-spaced, on creamy pages, with vast white margins, at less than one hundred pages, slipped between bright and artful covers of thick glossy paper that feels almost oiled. Pretty things, these books are satisfying objects, designed to tempt without taxing even the most lackadaisical reader. To this same end, the back cover nowadays most often has a handsome small photo of the author, smiling, nice looking, with a fresh complexion suggestive of quiet idylls in a dappled place, perhaps a potting garden, and contented observations on the flight of a bee. Beside the photo runs the poet's biography, the name in bold type:

"Y___ Z___ is the author of twelve previous chapbook collections of poems, including Arugula Washings and Stumpings, and her poems have appeared in a variety of journals, anthologies and other venues, including The South-West South Dakota Poetry Forum, Willow Lashings, and The Klamath Review. She has a degree in Sanskrit from Ohio State, and currently teaches Creative Writing at The Learning Center & The University of Western East Washington. She lives with her husband Tim, on a working pear orchard in the Tawalamuck scablands of Eastern Washington."

Above the photo and brief biography, an isolated stanza of charming warmth, usually running something like:

"Dusk. The trees are deathly still against the white-breathed

windless night-sky. Crows squabble over the frosted wind-falls

and my eye falls after them, gambling through the dead grasses

in pursuit of the messenger's deeper black, pitching caws and broken

shards of snapped fruit, lost and retrieved and gobbled in moonless places

in the gathering night, sharp beaks working in wet unseeable triumph."

Up from this, in a bold type, the endorsement of the poet's former creative writing teacher, and just above that, the publisher's breathless paragraph of almost inexpressible pleasure in the poet's first publication with the poetry professionals at the Fawn's Wallow Press:

"With an unrivaled ear for the dizzy thrum of nature, motherhood and the bypassed commonalities of everyday interaction in American language, Y___ Z___ retrieves the missed moments, deep losses and joy of a restless spirit becalmed by the narcotic of a life lived in constant, intellectual celebration of water-smoothed stone, buckets, and pear blossom. Here we find a dazzling intelligence in constant dialogue with itself, via the world, the rock, and the worn but faithful rubber boot. Her new collection represents an unflinching seeing into, as well as an embrace. A stunning achievement in expansive introspection."

How can one not?

I like fruit. I like crows. But then some random poem, usually near the middle of each slim volume, disrupts my thoughtless reading, suddenly raging without warning in the midst of all this tuneless jumbling of impressions, and my happy indifference is undone. Some resented father, or first husband, some man, at any road, bumbles in, slipping on the cowslips, tripping into the poet's solar plexus and unfeelingly induces an unladylike bit of excoriation, the bastard, and a bit of blood, human, black and unsavory, pours from the poor poet's sweet lips, and messes her Glogs. It's unsettling, to say the least.

"You sleep with a knife at my back

still, after all this years

in the sheets I scrubbed when you left..."


"My son will never know the erection

of the tomb you built me, Dad..."

And... I'm done. From that invariable moment, I'm awake suddenly to the slipshod and the silliness of the whole awkward enterprise. Could I really have read even so far as the back cover of the book and not seen how giddy and gross all this is? How did I miss her eye rolling through the grass? ! And yet, often as not, until I get at last to that first furious line, I read along from each clumsiness to the next -- as I never would, reading prose -- the senselessness just stumbling by me, scattering poesies, so pretty seemingly, so poetically arranged in all those all but equal lines...

And then I put the book from me, annoyed, not so much with the poet, who after all is entitled to her thoughts, resentments, and publication, but rather with myself, for getting suckered again, by a pleasant, rather even than a pretty face. I am an easy touch, when it comes to poets with nice smiles and loose gray hair. I can never quite see the hint of crazy in the eyes, but then the photographs are kept small. Yet, one would think I would know better by now. There's always a spot of blood on the trowel.


Daily Dose

From The French Journals of Mrs. Thrale and Doctor Johnson, edited by Tyson & Guppy


"We saw the king's horses and dogs. The dogs almost all English. Degenerate q."

From Dr. Johnson's French Journal, Friday, Oct. 20th, 1775

Saturday, September 19, 2009

An Old Saw That Doesn't Cut It Anymore

"Nobody reads essays."

This comment, made in my recent committee meeting, and by a perfectly respectable bookseller, made in fact by a most eminently estimable representative of the trade, shocked me down to my shoes. It ought not to have, actually. This was not something I had not heard before. When it was said, there was much nodding 'round the table. This statement has been accepted as a truism of the trade for as long as I've been in it.

I refute the assertion absolutely!

I will concede, the essays I love best, the greatest essays of the greatest English and American essayists, have not the audience they had when Addison & Steele came to renown, or Lamb was still the darling of the drawing room. The kind of magazine that once existed to publish just such personal, literary and usually humorous stuff has, with its popular audience, faded almost to a nullity. The Men of Letters who once populated the pages of literary reviews and newspapers have gone largely the way of the institutions and periodicals that supported them; to be replaced by whom and what? Just the specialized journals that natter amongst their specialties, newspapers that can afford little more space for books than "reviews in brief," publishing-industry blogs, and book club lists? No.

The personal and literary essay, I would argue, has not been in so fine a state as it is now for more than a generation. In no small part this has everything to do with the shift away from traditional publication in subscription based magazines and books from major, corporate publishing, to newer, less narrowly defined venues like broadcast media, and the Internet, and the resurgent underground of little magazines, small presses and local distribution. Finding little or nothing much worth reading among the dead letters that now pass for literary criticism in the overspecialized and self-referential little circles of academia, where the dated and dusty theories of this or that dead French bore still spin in ever tighter coils of unintelligible polyglotal theorizing, the common reader has rightly come to distrust the motives the doctorates, and has no more use for them than they have any interest in educating us. Literary authority, once vested not only in the dons and drabs of campus teas and towers, but in the established writers of literary fiction and journalism, has passed out of existence all but entirely. For both good and ill, we have been left largely to our own devices.

And into the void, a new generation of less genteel humorists, of less papered and pedigreed critics, of more personal essayists have stumbled and wandered onto the scene; utilizing such opportunities as may be had in the free papers, in broadsides and self-published chapbooks, on radio and television and, yes, in the much celebrated and much rightly maligned Internet, to reach audiences large and small, still eager for individual voices, humane advice and enthusiasm, and accessible culture. Think just of the bestselling essayists that started as contributors to the free weeklies, like Dan Savage, or Bernard Cooper, or the reputations born of NPR radio, like David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell and Sandra Tsing Loh. Think of all the discoveries of McSweeney's and The Best Nonrequired Reading collections from Dave Eggers & Co. Think of "The Believer," and of Matthew Stadler's Clear Cut Press, by means of which I came for the first time to Charles D'Ambrosio, among others. How many essayists now see themselves "in print" for the first time on

It is not true then, the old cliche that essays do not sell. It may be true that much that gets published first in a chapbook or on a blog deserves no better than the oblivion to which it is destined, but so it has always been and will always be, for the essay as for any other kind of literature. (When I think of the tepid, sad poetry I've had to read recently, all by instructors in "writing," I can only marvel that anyone still reads poetry at all! But then, one ought not to judge by just such a slim sample, when I've also read good and powerful stuff in any number of less likely places than what gets cranked out from colleges lately.) I would argue then that the readers of essays, albeit perhaps unknowingly so, might never have been so many. If book publishing, always a laggard and wasteful business, and bookselling no better, has not yet served this new audience quite as it might or should, it is wrong to suggest that they might not yet. It's past time that booksellers at least loose themselves from such dated notions of what does or does not sell. We obviously are in no position anymore to rely on past precedent -- see where our reliance on trust in bestseller lists, publishers' publicity campaigns, and what passes for a "review" in the New York Times Book Review has landed us!

If "nobody reads essays" is still something we booksellers nod at, we just aren't paying attention.

Daily Dose

From Lectures on the English Comic Writers, by William Hazlitt


"We judge in a crowd with the sense and feelings of others; and from the very strength of the impression, fancy we should have come to the same unavoidable conclusion had we been left entirely to ourselves."

From The Free Admission

Friday, September 18, 2009

Out From Under My Bridge for the Afternoon

When I went to Portland, last weekend, I had really only one thing to do, officially. I had little or no reason otherwise for going. My job at the bookstore is not such as would require anything of me at a booksellers' convention. I do not review catalogues, take appointments with publishers' reps, or order frontlist books. Last year, I did attend a couple of the workshops and seminars on offer, as much from being at loose-ends while trapped at the Airport Holiday Inn as from curiosity. I found a couple of the speakers genuinely interesting and informative, though mostly I found myself wishing that other people from the bookstore, people whose jobs more directly connected to the activities discussed, had been able to go instead of me. Largely for economic and logistical reasons, this was not possible. If anything, this was even more so this year. Nearly all of our managers this year were, like the economy, in retreat that weekend. For the bookstore, this was just an unexpected scheduling conflict. So, this year, I was largely alone, and honestly, I had only the one task at the convention. I had to go to the meeting of my committee.

For any never honored by assignment to such a committee, I thought I might briefly describe the experience. Now, as our deliberations are meant to be secret, I can neither name my fellows, nor tell the particulars. My only object then is to convey something of the process and atmosphere, not so much of the prestigious body of which I am a member, but of my experience of service on committees in general, with I hope only the most discreet reference to any particular committee on which I've served. My experience of committee work actually extends beyond the convention and my working life as a bookseller, into the remote days of my glancing involvement in politics, activism and even theater. That last, other than actual performance, really is nothing much but committee work, though of an unusually engaging and entertaining kind. As for the politics, etc., I was never much more than a fellow traveller. This did not, at least in those early days, entirely preclude real service, but I largely confined my participation to marches, mass protests, and setting up chairs for meetings to which I was not then invited, or at which, often as not, I chose not to stay, or left early. I wasn't a very good activist, you see. I disliked and distrusted the free-for-all nature of those meetings, was ill-suited to any but the most practical discussions, and never learned how best I might contribute without becoming impossibly impatient with the types that invariably dominate such discussions: the tellers of lengthy and irrelevant personal anecdotes, the adrenaline junkies, hot for mindless confrontation, and the spoiled children of suburban privilege, newly radicalized and eager to prove themselves as revolutionaries, by offering Leninist critiques of suggested bake-sales, etc. There are admirably patient people, I discovered, who can harness the energies of all these, as well as the good majority of sincerely committed and willing workers, in addition to the lazy and intolerant, such as myself, and actually get things done. I have the greatest respect for such remarkable people. I've seen them manage everything from assaults on major drug companies, to the major renovation of a working bookstore. I am always happiest just following the leaders, from well back in the rear of the march.

Now in my second year of service, I may be described as a veteran, but I claim no special authority. I have served in similar circumstances elsewhere, though never to so elevated a purpose. On no committee have I ever been invited, elected or sought to take the chair; an unenviable part in the proceedings, so far as I can judge as the work doubles for much the same reward. It being the nature of any task undertaken in fellowship to sooner than later find the one person willing to drag the rest behind, I have always found the most comfortable, least taxing position to be furthest from the lead. Any comment or encouragement offered from well back seems to carry furthest for calling on the best rested voice. I find this maxim proved again by last weekend's experience.

We met again in a rather anonymous room, again in a thoroughly anonymous hotel. Only one among us had the foresight to bring her own snack, which she generously offered to share when lunch proved to not be forthcoming. (The esteemed representative of our sponsoring organization was the only one among us who had the sense to follow instruction and bring his free lunch from the convention floor. Anxious to get on with it, and not a little embarrassed that we none of us quite followed his example, we went without lunch until the meeting concluded.) I sipped my soda, and visualized the Cobb salad I was to have after in the hotel's only restaurant. Our chairperson distributed a thoughtfully updated spreadsheet of the books we were there to consider recognizing. There was a good deal of preliminary chatter about this title and that, though mostly in the negative, with a few early enthusiasms espoused, before we were called to some semblance of order. Our task at this gathering was threefold: to recommend and defend any books we thought deserving of either a place in our final list or at least a second look, to be reminded of those books some might either have missed or not yet received, and finally to eliminate, by voice-vote, those books we need not consider further. I brought a small stack of books I meant to champion, as I might miss my chance without the actual book in my hand, and because having the books to show my fellow committee members might help to make the titles stick. With the exception of my little stack, my primary task was to vote "no." I was, as always, willing to be overridden occasionally, and give some book I hadn't liked enough to bring, another chance. This however proved less of an issue this year as compared to last, as most of the negatives proved common among the majority. Notes were made next to the titles I had overlooked, and by the books I had yet to see. As always, as the resident dissident in the room, I waited for and received instruction as to the Young Adult titles I had to grudgingly consider. Finally, our revised list was reviewed and agreed to, and off we went, some of us, starving, to lunch. My Cobb salad was everything I remembered from last year.

The whole operation, with spirited discussion, pro and con, took somewhere around and hour and change, I think.

And that is the only reason I felt inclined to describe this meeting, however vaguely, here. Having been in just such anonymous meeting rooms before, to say nothing of church basements and the like, I am no little impressed again at the thoughtfulness, and efficiency of this particular committee, of the organizational skill of both our chairperson and our association's staff, and of the seriousness with which my fellow committee members take their responsibilities, but not themselves. I can honestly say, I have never experienced the like. Not one person strove to dominate the discussion, indulged in pointless rambling, or refused to concede a point. Based on all my previous experience of such group discussions, I can honestly say, I've never served in a more congenial and productive body. If my role in the proceedings has come to be that of the crusty curmudgeon, the role I seem best suited to assume in any such gathering, I have been accepted as such, and rather sweet concessions are made, by my fellow veterans, to my want of enthusiasm for picture books, tales of teenage angst and the like.

"You only have to read this one, Brad."

If I could, and if it did not breach our anonymity further than I may well already have done, I would record these meetings as an example to others, and to remind myself, despite all my grousing, just how painless a process it can be to serve a higher purpose as part of a working committee. Working with good people, good booksellers anyway, can be a genuine pleasure. I must remember this.

Daily Dose

From Best Loved Story Poems, selected by Walter E. Thwing


"Two old bachelors were living in one house;
One caught a Muffin, the other caught a Mouse."

From Humor and Satire, the first lines of The Two Old Bachelors, by Edward Lear

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Anglo-Indian Clerihew


Poor Rudyard Kipling,
Was just a stripling,
When sent back "home," from his beloved Bombay,
To be neglected in the English way.

Daily Dose

From James Agate: an Anthology, edited by Herbert Van Thal


"Sometimes I think that reading about books is nearly as good as reading the books themselves."

From Experience

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Country House Clerihew


Mrs. Thrale
Caught a whale,
Decked him out in unstained apparel,
And kept him in a stout ale-barrel.

Daily Dose

From Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare, by Charles Lamb


"When a giant is shown to us, does it detract from the curiosity to be told that he has at home a gigantic brood of brethren, less only than himself?"

From Lamb's note to The Two Angry Women of Abingdon, A Comedy, by Henry Porter, 1599

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Anglo-Irish Clerihew


The well bred Maria Edgeworth,
In addressing the alleged dearth
Of respectable Anglo-Irish fiction,
Kept the Irish, but corrected the diction.

Daily Dose

From The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, by Vladimir Nabokov


"The dreary tussle with a foreign idiom and a complete lack of literary experience do not predispose one to feeling over-confident."

Monday, September 14, 2009


I have a friend, about as good a Catholic, in his way, as he is a tap-dancer, who none the less has been repeatedly on pilgrimage, to one holy place after another. He is an accomplished traveler, a devoted hiker, and a sociable fellow, so even when walking off time in Purgatory, let's just say sin is never far from his thoughts, or kept entirely out of his sleeping-bag. (As I remember it, sin is most often Spanish.) I can not say I will ever understand walking to any purpose beyond arriving, and by no means, at either salvation or even a higher purpose. More likely, for me, would be lunch. Like many a fat, lazy sensualist before me, I prefer pleasure to drop into my lap, -- be it a boy, baked goods, or a book. But if I once went, before marriage to a good cook, no small distance, and might go some small distance still, for either of the first two, experience shows I will go much further for the last. The idea of ambulatory meditation then is not completely beyond my godless ken. I will travel great distances, walk many a dusty aisle, kneel, bow and stretch my arms up to heaven, so long as I am in the presence of good books. Ever the materialist though, I have a well established prejudice against public or institutional libraries; the rule is too strict, the discipline foreign to me, and the reward too ethereal. My bibliophilia is too materialist a devotion for such abstract edification. As a reader, as a communicant, I am very low church indeed, preferring my instruction to be without mediation, my contemplation private. I distrust the doctrine of transubstantiation even as to books. Any book I love, must be mine that I might know its mysteries. I'll have no librarian's priestcraft, thank you, or trust that I may take communion only at some consecrated table in a temple. Better my armchair, in my house.

My pilgrimage then is mapped from bookstore to bookstore. (I've visited such cathedrals even as the Library of Congress with an awed resentment, suspicious of the Romish pomp, respectful of the preservation of artifacts, but distrustful of the privileged access, and the actual utility of books more dusted and recorded than read. I've known many a librarian to recommend trash before treasure, and many a library that has discarded the rarest gold, to make space for baubles, bangles and bunk.) I've been know to give directions to even the least bookish destinations with bookstores as my only landmarks, as these, with good taco stands, are often the only reason I've had to venture abroad in even the cities where I've lived for years. When asked if I'd been, while in Portland, to a great museum there, a favorite of a friend, I had to admit, the idea had never crossed my mind. Not with Powell's just a block from my favorite hotel there, it being my favorite hotel, of course, because it is just a block from Powell's.

To any not lucky enough to have been, Powell's City of Books, is a Portland, OR institution. Established in 1971, by the father of Michael Powell, after working one summer in his son's shop in Chicago, what started in a storefront, has grown into a bookstore full worthy of the boast in its name. I have been in great bookstores in many places. I have walked all the floors of The Strand in New York. I have been even to London's Charring Cross. Powell's is the equal of any bookstore I have been lucky enough to be in.

Beyond its size, and it's perfect blend of new, used and bargain books, it is besides a place respectful of every preference and purse. I might admire a rare edition of Lamb, or a rare volume, beautifully made, of Cowper's poems in the Rare Book Room -- as close as I'll ever come to owning such a book -- but I might also, as I did, buy a homely, stout and sturdy edition of Cowper's poems, from open shelves, in the poetry section, for all of eight dollars. From Powell's, in fact, I have my copies of Lamb's letters, and Thackeray's, and my Complete Waverley Novels of Sir Walter Scott, retrieved for me, and the dust blown off, from a kind young clerk in a suburban branch of the company. Much of my Dickensiana I had from Powell's, purchased online from their simple and efficient website. For none of these, or any of my many treasures gathered from their stock, have I paid anything more than a fair price. For much of what I bought from Powell's, I paid considerably less than I might have anywhere else.

It is then this for which I am most grateful to Powell's: that I might come to them, as I've just done this past weekend, and in as many hours as my feet would let me, I might not only walk among great books, but walk out with them, and still have the means to make a good supper.

This latest trip brought me much I am still astonished to have found, and found I could afford! Books on Johnson, and a book on Mrs. Thrale, two books by James Agate, the great British theatrical critic, a great fat volume of the Best Loved Story Poems, dating from the mid-century-last, and Lamb's Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare, perhaps among the few books by Lamb I've never owned. In all, I came away with three bags full. Quotations already begun, and more to follow.

When I go to Powell's, when I take friends, always at their request, for the place may deserve but does not require my evangelizing, I am mindful always that such rare places are not often afforded the respect so unthinkingly paid, most often from complete ignorance of their contents or conduct of business, to even the most pedestrian or pawky public libraries. The snobbery that persists in seeing honest business as somehow inferior to the apparent, if hemmed and hobbled democracy of publicly funded institutions is perhaps the last vestige, ironically, of the old oligarchical disdain of commerce. The great libraries, after all, have most often been founded as much as monuments to the bloodiest of barons and the worst bastards in history, as reserves of learning, and the least and greatest, the newest and the oldest extant, are still funded, at least in part, by the charity of bored belles and dead collectors in hope of a secondhand immortality, and by the basest of political and bureaucratic populism -- near ev'body likes a library, on principle, even with no one in it. Independent bookstores, great and small, and booksellers, I would argue, have supported more genius, and provided even the least proud with more beloved books, than all the libraries in this country's history. Lincoln may, of necessity, have borrowed his first books, but the first thing he bought as soon as he earned the money to buy them, were the books he loved. No great man, or humble reader, ever died regretting the books he had in delinquency from a public library. It is the book I buy, to read and reread at my pleasure, that comes nearest to being mine.

I owe far more than I've ever paid, to Powell's Books. My means are not equal to my admiration, anymore than they can ever satisfy my acquisitiveness, though I do what I can with what I have. I send this poor valentine then, against my bill.