Monday, February 28, 2011

What I Learned at Book Club

A coworker approached me in the street this morning and we shared that awkward, urban moment wherein neither party smiles, or risks a greeting, until eye-contact can be firmly established. I hadn't seen her coming up behind me, and, in all my winter bulk of hat & scarves and layers, she wasn't sure it was me, until she could actually see my face, by getting right up in my grille. That she did when we stopped for the light at a crosswalk. It was a little startling for us both. We had to laugh. We had both been practicing our urban walk: purposeful and fast, and our city look: straight-ahead and not to be messed with. It's a matter of self protection; against the cold and all the other difficulties of moving from point A to point B in a city. Don't know that either of us are all that convincing as serious city folk. Neither of us could be easily described as tough customers. On the winter streets of Seattle, I resemble nothing so much as a full laundry basket, and she's a pretty young blond, under her bulky coat. However, we have both learned to set our faces against the wind, as well as the beggars and the ubiquitous charity-shills that line the Ave., and to look neither left nor right until the traffic light changes at the corners, and to ignore even direct address on the way to and from work, unless and until we can be sure that the person looking to get our attention is actually an acquaintance, rather than a lunatic or some other potentially dangerous or distracting stranger hoping to get an "extra" cigarette from me, or a smile from her.

On my very first trip to New York City, as a teenager, I remember coming across the bridge into Manhattan. It was inexpressibly exciting for such a country bumpkin, seeing the City for the first time. As the car pulled up to the first traffic light, I saw some demented soul dancing in the median, dressed in only a bra and skirt, his filthy beard and dreadlocks mysteriously wet on a dry night. He had a large butcher-knife. From the safety of the car, with the doors locked and all the windows rolled up, I stared, mesmerized, until my ride, a City native, offered the following excellent advice:

"In the City, you're allowed to stare, darling, but if he catches you, he's allowed to stab you."

Never forgot that maxim of urban etiquette. Avoiding eye-contact in a city, in even so provincial and pleasant a city as Seattle, is not then an indication of bad manners so much as a strategy to avoid being late for everything, and for being sound when one arrives. Totally worth whatever trade-off in small-town-conviviality, just to live in a more exciting, interesting and potentially rewarding place than the one in which I grew up. There, no one with even the remotest acquaintance with the people passing from Walmart to car, or from bank window to the sidewalk, would think of not nodding, smiling, and saying hello. When I go back, I find this charming -- for the first few days. After that, I am reminded how oppressive it can be; how one may long for anonymity, how politeness may oblige a chat with every kind of bore, the way that even the simplest task or the fastest errand can be extended into an afternoon requiring review of unnecessary medical bulletins, fussing over unknown grand-babies, and listening to stories from near strangers of events in which one has had no part since high school and about which one had no interest even then.

Coming back to a higher civilization is less a return to a place where opera, liberal politics, bookstores and bubble-tea can be had for the asking, than a chance to walk a quarter of a mile unmolested by anyone or anything more distracting than the occasional spanging junky or loose dog. So much more peaceful. No survivor of the flood has any right here to interrupt a meal to ask after third cousins, or distract at a bank-machine with news of the outrageous price of canned peaches at the A&P, or share the Good News in a parking lot. In a city, as opposed to a town, people who do that sort of thing regularly are, quite rightly, ignored. What they deserve, frankly. What I may love best about living, as most people now wisely choose to do in this country, in places with long sidewalks. One can keep to one's thoughts on a proper, crowded sidewalk -- if one knows how.

In my preference for cities, I may be prejudiced by my ongoing experience of retail sales. Any ancestral need for wider community; for the practice of tolerance, for the cultivation of respectful patience, particularly with the elderly, or the infirm, any need to observe the full range of family and class interactions, may be met on an average shift clerking in a bookstore. The smallest of small-talk being a daily routine of retail, I perhaps feel less need of it in the rest of my life.

All of which, in addition to whatever questions of character that may be prompted by this piece hereafter, may be what has unsuited me for Book Club. I had never participated in such a gathering before joining my dear friend, N., in planning, promoting and leading this one. The Club, from the very beginning, has been almost wholly my friend's; it is ultimately his monthly selection which is read, he all but invariably leads the weekly discussions, and his are the personality and talents best suited to the task. As it has turned out, while always welcome, I haven't actually been much needed, and that is a very good thing indeed. As it has also turned out, I do not much like Book Club. Put it another way, while I genuinely like nearly all the men and women who have participated, and while I have enjoyed many, though by no means most of the discussions for which I have been irregularly present, I am quite simply a terrible Club member.

To begin with, I attend with an ever increasing infrequency. The hour at which the Book Club meets is inconvenient; necessitating an early and not always workable departure from the bookstore. If I leave on time, what with the rush hour traffic, I can only count on getting to the meeting a few minutes before it ends. This is a fairly minor point, but no less annoying for being that. What this usually means is that by the time I get to the meeting, early or late, I am already more than a little frazzled. Whatever enthusiasm I may be able to work up for attending, can be undone by an hour's crawl in the car. There have been evenings when, I left for Book club as early as I might, and with the best intention, only to keep going slowly South to home rather than turn off at the exit that would just as slowly get me to Book Club. In part, this is because I want very much, every evening to get home to my husband, Dear A., before he has had his supper and started to doze. He would never think to insist on such a schedule. He does not begrudge me spending time with friends or away from home. The window of time when we might both be said to be at our best however has narrowed a bit in recent years, and while I like best being with him, waking or sleeping, I have grown increasingly jealous of the time we have together and resentful of any impediment, however pleasant, to that communion. It is purely selfish of me. I know that, but there it is.

Neither of the reasons provided above, however, is by any means the primary reason why I have found myself, despite my respect for and deep loyalty to my friend, N., increasingly avoiding Book Club. I said before how much I've come to like and enjoy the company of most of the regular members of the Club. This is true. The majority have proven to be an exceptionally nice bunch; welcoming, considerate of others and their opinions, engaged and engaging men and women. They have also uniformly proved themselves to be intelligent and careful readers, open to almost every book selection, however old, obscure or exotic. There have been exceptions to this rule. Beyond the unavoidable presence, now and again, of the stray crazy person, and or the occasional cypher who shows up not having read the book and with no intention of participating, there have been a few participants with whom I felt an immediate and embarrassing antipathy. One pissy little puppy, out I suspect to express his disdain for failure of the Club that night to otherwise attract much in the way of hot, young ass, and to show off a little for the friend that brought him, during the otherwise polite discussion of the book, he dismissed in no uncertain terms both the author, J. R. Ackerley, and his book as both hopelessly dull and "irrelevant" to both literature and himself. This boy had been to the group just the week before, and, I was assured, afterwards, that he had been "delightful." I hadn't attended that week. He did not offer much by way of explanation or elaborate much further, but he was willing to suggest that as a serious student of altogether more serious literature, anyone who thought other than he did of Ackerley, which, as I say, wasn't much, was an idiot. The night I was there, I found it took everything in me not to slap the lil' fucker right in his sassy mouth. Not a good evening for him, evidently, or for me.

While I have rarely encountered at Book Club quite that level of open hostility to both the book under discussion and the people present, what has become all too common, and the thing I find it harder and harder to make myself listen to, is an all too ready judgement, from many if not most in the group, as to the moral and or ethical value of the books, and the tendency among most, having passed a negative opinion of a particular novel as an example of appropriate and proper uplift, to then leave the discussion at that. It seems many readers do not like books in which they do not consider the protagonist sympathetic, which is to say nice, and that however eloquently or interestingly or ingeniously argued, any conclusion that does not suggest the triumph of good, may be found either too depressing to be enjoyed or too wicked to be endorsed. A feature of this has often been to equate the perceived character of the author with the quality of the work. Difficult or even unpleasant personalities, it seems it may not be admitted, might write beautiful and important books. These would be those opinions to which, one is constantly reminded, everyone is entitled.

That no one seemed to find much they could like about Colette disturbed me. That Gide struck most people present the night I went as both melodramatic and cruel was an unhappy surprise. That Ackerley could be thought both unfunny and irrelevant, as I've already said, nearly brought me to violence. Really though, what convinced me that I was not fit company for Book Club, was the universal dislike and disapproval of Mishima. There was not one person, including my friend, the host, willing to concede even the possibility of his redemption, or even a passing interest in what he wrote, how he thought, or what he had had to say about sacrifice, beauty or immortality. Mishima was death. Now there is no getting around death in Mishima, but to see nothing else...

I do not offer that unfair reduction of the group's regular discussions to indite anyone but myself as unfit to attend. (Okay, that one rude little bugger is better off wherever it was he going after, and should never come back. So me, plus one.) The reason then? Whatever may actually have been said about Mishima, or Colette or Gide, or any of the other authors we've discussed and for whom I happen to have an unshaken respect, what I've just written by way of summary was all I heard. That's a problem. I admit, the problem is mine, but there it is, as I see it, and increasingly I find myself unable to see past it, or any way 'round.

One of the great secrets of the successful bookseller -- which I may offer at this point, if for no other reason, but possible historical interest soon enough -- has always been a good deadpan. The term I take of course from comedy. When done right, the blank absence of reaction to any outrage, --whether it's a house falling down not on but just barely around Buster Keaton, or a customer in the bookstore explaining at length why Michael Savage is the greatest political thinker of our times -- can not only make an absurd and or dangerous situation bearable, but even amusing. Like the refusal to acknowledge all the hucksters and the crazies encountered on a city sidewalk, the lack of reaction to even the most overt provocation, in retail as in a Buster Keaton comedy, can lend an unexpected grace, and sympathy, to even the most seemingly hapless victim of unforeseen consequences, of simply standing in front of an unstable structure, or asking an unstable individual if he might require any help in finding a suitable book.

I like to think, after roughly a quarter of a century of living in cities and working in bookstores, that I may trust my own mug to not betray me, but all the evidence suggests that any such confidence, even now, might be misplaced. Clearly, however fiercely I may deny having an "extra" cigarette, something about me, other than just the cigarette in my hand, still suggests that I might. Likewise, however fast I manage to shuffle along against a strong wind, and however much I may scowl, something about my face and figure and the way I carry my increasingly heavy load, still suggests I might want to "save the children," donate blood, or overturn this or that referendum. Beggars, it seems, can just hear all the loose change rattling in my pockets. Worse though than any of these social deficits, as someone who still hopes to retire someday from a bookstore, however hard I may try, and however sure I may be of my hard-won ability to keep a straight face with any customer, I know, to my shame that all too often, the look on my face, whatever I might say, or however pleasant I may mean to be, and think I am being, will betray my actual opinion of Dan Brown, white gurus, books about cats and the people who read them, and any number of other perfectly legitimate areas of interest within the bookstore. I do try, I honestly do, and I don't mind saying that when I have really muffed a transaction with a raised eyebrow, I am as shocked by this as the customer. I won't say my reaction is involuntary, I have no such excuse at this stage of the game, but my repentance is genuine, almost each and every time. That doesn't seem to do me or anyone else much actual good, but there we are.

What going to Book Club has taught me, beyond anything I've learned there otherwise, and more forcefully than even my rather dismal performance in various bookstores over the years, is that not only do I not have a face for poker, I am not to be trusted among nice people who, as people have been at pains all my life to remind me, are entitled to their opinions. I may have finally come to understand, in my fifth decade on this earth, that not everyone is entitled to my opinion, and that fewer people than I may once have supposed will ever welcome it, but that is not quite the same thing as having mastered actual restraint. As it has indeed turned out, a small circle of comfortable chairs, occupied for the most part by perfectly nice people who may not see every book just as I do, or expect from literature quite what I might myself, or appreciate as I might certain authors and books widely venerated as classics, such an environment is for me, entirely too dangerous a place. I am reminded too much of the more tightly observant town of my childhood, of the possibility of offense in silence, even on the rare occasions I can achieve such a state, and that mine is not face that welcomes alternative points of view, nor a mind that respects the boundaries of friendly discussion, nor a person fit for most company.

So rather than go even once a month now to a perfectly nice room full of perfectly nice people and listen to them say perfectly justifiable things with which I may strongly disagree about books I may not even happen to specially like, I think everyone may be better off if on Wednesdays, for the foreseeable future, I plan on heading home at the regular hour, to argue over take out chicken with my husband, the relative merits of this boy's choice of boxer-briefs as opposed to that guy wearing a speedo all season on "Survivor." The husband is used to me, I may do my worst, and he will still, inexplicably, love me. But then, I love him. He must see that.

Daily Dose

From The Poetical Works of George Crabbe, edited by A. J. Carlyle and R. M. Carlyle


"The mind of man must have whereon to work,
Or it will rust -- we see it in the Turk"

From Posthumous Tales, Tale XVII, Danvers and Rayner

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Walnuts & Wine

Nearly everyone who ever knew him, loved Edward Fitzgerald. His immediate family was a rather painful exception, though he loved even that difficult crew as best he could. His friends, though, were his life. Their wives did not always have a share in this mutual admiration. A few deeply resented his interference, and not without cause. Fitzgerald could be a bit too attentive to the boys. Still, Fitz did his best to befriend even the most obstreperous among his mates' mates, and most were eventually won over, to one degree or another. But even the patience of his dearest friends could tried by the intensity of his attentions. He was never demanding, but he could be too generous with his time, his affection, his coin and his advice. He was probably at his worst with fellow poets. For a man who actually produced next to nothing in the way of original verse, at least until, ironically enough, he set seriously about translating other poets, Fitzgerald never hesitated to express his opinion of his friends' original work. He was unusually encouraging, actually had excellent taste, and could be an exact and inspired critic, but he was perhaps a little too eager to help. He knew many if not most of the major poets of his day, many well before their fame. With some, like the brothers Tennyson, he was intimately acquainted. He was always perfectly sincere in his appreciation, and did anything he could to promote the work of writers and artists he recognized as being his superiors. Whatever their gifts or accomplishments, for Fitzgerald, friends deserved his honest opinion, and he expected no less from them. Not everyone was obliged, always.

By the time his fabulously wealthy mother died, Fitzgerald was a very rich man, and quite comfortable in a more modest way even before then. He could afford to be generous. He had all the time in the world to read, and was genuinely keen to know everything about anything that interested his friends. Unlike others similarly situated, he was always willing to learn, and to be taught, and he encouraged and cultivated talent wherever encountered, and however situated. He was just as likely to befriend a poor man as an aristocrat, throughout his long life. Much of his advice may have been presumptuous, and even wrong-headed, but it was never condescending. He was quite rightly humble as to his own gifts as a writer. He fully appreciated the limitations of his own education, preferences and experience. He lived in great simplicity for most of his life, only indulging himself in books and paintings -- of which he was no very good judge -- and such music as he usually made himself, though he loved going to concerts. He depended on his friends for much of the variety he otherwise would never have had in his life. Age did not much matter. He easily made friends not just among his contemporaries, but in the previous generation as well. Even more often, he sought the company of men sometimes considerably younger than himself, with gifts quite different from his. He did everything he could to encourage these younger friends in the pursuit of their own ambitions. In fact, with more than one, he made their interests entirely his own. With one handsome boy, Fitzgerald took so active an interest in his studies of Persian, as to ask his friend's help in learning the language himself. It was under the tutelage of this much younger friend, that Fitzgerald first read the poet whose name is still linked with his own. It must be admitted that in this instance, and in others throughout Fitzgerald's life, there was an element of largely if not wholly unrequited romance in many of his most intense friendships. What of it? It might fairly be said that we owe Fitzgerald's classic translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to a crush on a boy. But Fitzgerald's knack for friendship, one might almost say his great need for it, was not limited to handsome lads, poets or no. One of the dearest friends to Fitzgerald in old age was his faithful correspondent, the great actress and abolitionist, Fanny Kemble, and one of Fitzgerald's best friends, nearer to home, was a local Anglican priest, named George Crabbe, the son and biographer of the poet of that name.

This friendship resulted in one of Fitzgerald's most curious literary interventions. In hopes of reviving interest in the older poet's work, Fitzgerald spent some time and considerable effort editing and abridging one of Crabbe last books for republication. Tales of the Hall, when originally published in 1819, had had some success. By the time of the elder George Crabbe's death in 1834, the fashion in poetry had changed and Crabbe was already being dismissed as old fashioned and less than properly "poetic." Fitzgerald amended a new title, Readings from Crabbe, to the little book, and trimmed it, interjecting explanatory prose to patch over the pruning, in the hope that new readers might be attracted to what Fitzgerald thought best and most characteristic in Crabbes' work. The resulting curious little volume, which I recently had reprinted for me on the bookstore's Espresso Book Machine, Homer, Fitzgerald had privately printed in 1879, at his own expense, though he wasn't able to interest anyone in distributing or selling it for him until 1882. In a letter, Fitzgerald explained "I can gain nothing from the Public, whether of Praise or Pelf; neither of which was my object -- which was simply to try and gain a few readers to this awkward old genius." I've read now Fitzgerald's bowdlerized version, and the original, and I can't say that Fitzgerald did Crabbe any favor. Still, it was reading Fitzgerald's letters that sent me to read Crabbe for the first time, so in a round about way, and if only with me, Fitzgerald has accomplished something like what he determined to do, which was to find a new reader for George Crabbe.

Crabbe was a popular and respected poet in his day, an early and life-long favorite of Walter Scott's, for example, and admired by Byron, Wordsworth and many others besides. The general consensus, even among his admirers, was that his was a most uneven production, and that even the best of him tended to be be mixed in almost equal portion with the worst. Fitzgerald, in his estimation of Crabbe's latter poems, was by no means making an eccentric or unkind estimation of their worth, when he took it upon himself to try and improve on the originals.

Having read in the letters so much about not only about Fitzgerald's friendship for father and son, but of his interest in improving and preserving in so unusual a way what he thought best in the older man's poetry, I determined to find and read something of Crabbe's poetry for myself, not just Fitzgerald's reworking of Crabbe's "Tales," but all his stuff, as well as the biography of the poet by his son, Fitzgerald's great friend. Letters, more than any other literary form, including biography, tend to make such missions attractive to me. In getting to know an individual so well, as only the best letters allow, one wants then to know something more of what they knew, of the books they read and mentioned, the writers they admired and the friends they made. No one's letters since Lamb's have provided me with so long a list of interesting possibilities for further reading. Thanks to my access to the wonder that is the bookstore's EBM, as regular reader's here will remember, I needn't wait for luck and my regular trawling in used bookstores to gratify these impulses to further reading anymore, but can instead simply pop the new name into the searchable database of Google Books and have a stack like that pictured above, produced for me in less time and at less expense than would have been required to place an order online with a bookstore like Powell's -- assuming even Powell's might have any of these books in stock -- which they didn't when I checked. Now as it happens, I've since found a very nice blue Oxford edition of Crabbe's poetry, for quite a reasonable price, just down the road at my favorite local used bookstore, but all that's meant is that my library is now better by a copy for home and another, cheaper paperback copy to lug roughly about in my briefcase.

And so, I've been feasting on a big mess o' Crabbe for more than a week now. I did read the son's biography, which is a charming document, full of affection, delicacy and a rare sympathy for both his father's virtues and his faults. To supplement and expand a bit on this, I had the later Victorian critic, Alfred Ainger's, slim volume on the poet, part of The English Men of Letters series on which I have come to rely for their concision, good style and good humor. Ainger's opinion of Crabbe differs only in a few particulars from Fitzgerald's, though neither man would seem to have had quite enough distance from the revolution wrought by Coleridge and Wordsworth, or the still fashionable taste in Ainger's day for Tennyson, to appreciate just how much a reader in the 21st Century might not care about what is or is not proper poetry in Crabbe. On one crucial point, namely the idea of elevating subjects and beauty as the only fit stuff from which the best poetry is made, the contemporary reader has blessedly been freed. One of the most consistent complaints of Crabbe, from his immediate contemporaries down to influential later critics like Leslie Stephens, was that he wrote too much about unedifying subjects: bleak coastal landscapes, poor and often ignorant people, leading small and often unhappy lives. Not a few of Crabbe's Tales, including his most famous, "Peter Grimes," from which the opera was taken, involve a kind of mean, senseless violence which, despite Crabbe's entirely orthodox Christianity, struck many of his Victorian readers as unsavory. For the reader today, there's an obvious irony in this, as it is the poet's piety, and his life-long devotion to the poetic forms of the earlier masters, like Dryden & Pope, rather than any perceptible vulgarity in Crabbe's language or distaste for his humble subjects, that might make reading his rhymed couplets a bit of a chore.

I'm glad I read 'round George Crabbe's poetry before I undertook to read much of it myself. Having the context for what and why he wrote as he did, allowed me to appreciate just how well he did what he did. Think of it: one of Crabbe's first enthusiastic critics, and an early editor was Edmund Burke, and through that connection Crabbe came to know and be advised by no less a figure than Johnson. Of humble origins, and limited education, Crabbe never the less, through such friends, found not only his place and employment as a clergyman, but also was able to establish a reputation that saw him though many years without a single published poem until the most productive period of his middle age, by which time he was much admired by Wordsworth! George Crabbe in fact lived long enough to win the admiration of other poets down even to the middle of the century after his birth, and to be subject to the truly touching efforts to sustain his reputation made by his son's friend, Fitzgerald. Tastes change however, and as I've already mentioned, by the time of Crabbe's death, his failure to experiment with form, his refusal to abandon what now seems most obviously to have been the style that suited him best, left him increasingly without a popular audience. Ainger makes the point that there is probably no other major poet in English who was so quickly and completely forgotten.

Looking for Crabbe among my anthologies, there's very little to be found. In the first place, narrative poetry has almost completely disappeared. Then there is his failure to write the kind of lines, as Pope so preeminently did, that might survive as aphorisms independent of poetry. Crabbe was not much of a philosopher, it's true. His ideas, like his religion, were entirely conventional and very much what one might expect of a country clergyman. Fitzgerald blamed Stephens for establishing the opinion that Crabbe lacked not only wit but humor, and Fitzgerald was right and Stephens quite wrong about this. Crabbe, like Cowper, had not only a good heart, but a good eye for amusing and telling detail, though unlike Cowper, it may be fair to say that Crabbe had not a specially good ear, either for dialect or a joke, or even for the felicitous word, so far as the music of the thing is concerned.

Starting Crabbe then from what was a pretty low opinion in anticipation, imagine my delight in finding the reading not only enjoyable as often quite powerful narrative, but as good poetry more often than not as well. I won't pretend to any expertise in this, but as just a common reader I was shocked at how accessible and interesting, and how superbly managed nearly all of Crabbe's verse seemed to me. If a line was occasionally misshapen to accommodate the rhyme, even that can have it's interest, as such dogged devotion to form, while sometimes producing a clumsy result, does suggest a puzzler's pleasure in making a thing work, however imperfectly. As sins go, this seems more venal than mortal, at least to my enjoyment. And there is so much to enjoy in Crabbe's stories of petty thieves, bad masters, broken loves, country courting, murder, in his portraits of fishermen, farmers, minor clerics and distracted landlords, in his surprisingly detailed portrait of a place and time and way of life now all but altogether vanished. If I can not but find the consistent invocation of an unconvincingly benevolent deity anything more than understandable, and forgivable in the poet/priest, I hardly think I need waste any time here is suggesting why. Does such religious certainty undo the power of Milton? Or the pleasures of reading Gerard Manley Hopkins? I don't mean to equate Crabbe with either as a poet. I'm simply suggesting that the reader need not be in complete sympathy with the philosophy, let alone the theology of the poet to enjoy reading the poems. And Fitzgerald was right, there are great things to be found in Crabbe. Ainger says that Crabbe introduced pity into English poetry. I think that perfect. Whatever motivation the poet may have had as a religious man, the result is often quite moving because of the honesty and the genuine sympathy with which even the most mean existence described in these stories is treated. That, to my entirely secular way of thinking, makes Crabbe a better and if you will, a more inspired Christian, than most of the poets usually entered under that heading.

Fitzgerald said of Crabbe, "... I believe every thinking man will like him more as he grows older" and that may go a long way to explaining why I have found myself liking the old boy so much that I intend now to finish reading the whole of him. However slipshod some of his lines may be, however predictably exaggerated his language or muddy his sense at some times, however conventional and antique his sentiments, however unhappy his Toryism, and however unconvincing his God, Crabbe's heart, and his soul seem to me exceptionally fine. The poetry he used to express his sympathy rather than explicate his sympathies seems to me just as fine, and sometimes as fine as any I've ever read. Maybe it is just such a sympathetic personality that one looks for in the reading to be done in middle age. My own youth I spent as much in the search of novelty and innovation as anything else. Perfectly good thing for a young person to do. Now, I usually find such things annoyingly demanding. I'd rather know, and respect, the craftsmanship of something with which I might not wholly agree, said recognizably well, than chase after the meaning in something with which, if I could figure it out, I might concur more readily. Fitzgerald described Crabbe's poetry as being of "the walnuts and wine" type, and that, it seems, is very much to my taste as well now, as it happens.

Like Fitzgerald, when he put out his private edition of Crabbe's last "Tales," I hold out little hope of actually inducing anyone else to try Crabbe by writing about him here. I do so really more to explain why I've been writing so little of any substance here for so long.

I've been reading George Crabbe, and I must get back to him.

Daily Dose

From The Poetical Works of George Crabbe, edited by A. J. Carlyle and R. M. Carlyle


"And deeply skill'd in sciences and arts,
On vulgar lads he wastes superior parts."

From The Borough, Letter XXIV, Schools

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Clerihew of Virtue Preserved


Miss Rose Macaulay,
Once, to forestall a
Proposal of marriage,
Leapt out of the carriage.

Daily Dose

From New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith


I died for lack of company
Did my dear friends not know?
Oh why would they not speak to me
Yet said they loved me so?"

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Semiotic Clerihew


Julia Kristeva
Someday might achieve a
less dour, cheerless aspect
with a style less abject.

Daily Dose

From Short Studies on Great Subjects, by James Anthony Froude


"So far are we from free discussion that the world is not yet agreed that a free discussion is desirable; and till it be so agreed the substantial intellect of the country will not throw itself into the question."

From A Plea for Free Discussion

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Excerpt from Hard Times for These Times, by Charles Dickens

Clerihew of Working Class Orgins


Alfred Edgar Coppard,
Sometimes found it so hard
Not to call proper ladies, "lasses,"
Which always charmed the middle classes.

Daily Dose

From The Poems of James Whitcomb Riley


"Sing for the arms that fling
Their fetters in the dust..."

From Liberty

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill


"Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions of customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress."

From Chapter III, On Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Poems of Walter Savage Landor, selected and edited by Ernest Radford


"Corruption may subvert
What force could never."

From Count Julian, Third Act, Third Scene

Monday, February 21, 2011

Epitaph On A Tyrant, by W. H. Auden

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by W. H. Auden


"Could any tiger
Drink martinis, smoke cigars,
And last as we do?"

From Symmetries & Asymmetries

Sunday, February 20, 2011

We Too Had Known Golden Hours, by W. H. Auden

Daily Dose

From The Life of the Rev. George Crabbe, LL. B., by his son, the Rev. George Crabbe, A. M.


"Such minds covet not, envy not, the advantages of youth, but regard them with benevolent satisfaction -- perhaps not unmixed with a species of apprehensive pity; -- for their fiery ordeal is not yet past."

From Chapter X, Trowbridge.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Remains to Be Seen

I've sent off three drawings this week, and left two others at the store, to be called for when the subject, an up-and-coming, and quite attractive young novelist, comes in to do a reading from his new book. Of the three I put into the mail, two are going to the people I drew, and one is on its way to the subject's mother. That last is a gesture to a friend, or friends, I should say, as while the writer depicted has been a friend since before his first book came out, some time ago now, his mother has subsequently become something of a friend of mine as well. Dear lady. She raised a good son. He's become quite a good writer too, though that doesn't enter into it, except in so far as that would be the reason for drawing him and posting it here. I don't draw my friends much nowadays. In fact, I almost never draw my friends, or anyone I love, any more. Used to do, but not always with the happiest results. Still happens -- both the sketching and the unhappiness -- and so while I should like to be able to say "lesson learned," obviously I can not. Anyway, this guy's mother rather liked the last drawing I did of him, and as I specially like her, I sent it off. Haven't heard back yet, from the mom, but that's the one, interestingly enough, I'm fairly confident will be best pleased. I'm generally a pretty fair judge of mothers. Most often they've rather liked me, and the drawings I've done of their sons, even when they haven't always approved of everything else I may have got up to, back in the day, with their boys.

Actually, I haven't got up to much in the way of sketching, or really had better say, anything at all much, with any one's son lately, and while that's as it should be -- all things considered -- still, it feels necessary to make the point explicitly just here. There was a time, now ever so long ago, when a #2 pencil was perhaps the surest point in Cupid's quiver, if you will allow me that without too much wincing. It's true. It may not be all that easy to believe, and believe me, I quite understand why, but there was a time when boys were quite flattered when asked if I might sketch them, and they often let me. True, that was in some ways a more innocent period, for all involved but me I suppose, and the boys back then weren't perhaps the most sophisticated models. They tended not to distinguish between what even then was really just a rather slight gift for portraiture and an eye for comic exaggeration -- to say nothing of the distinction between pure and impure impulses, admiration and lust, high and low art, etc. I had a reputation, all a little vague and not altogether savory even then, as someone who was good with a pencil and paper. The idea that what I did best, at least with a pencil, was hardly the stuff of either deathless beauty or even always kindly meant, was easily over-ridden by the novelty of anyone finding these boys -- even if just their faces, supposedly -- interesting. Boys generally speaking, just aren't very interesting. I wasn't, at the time, in most ways save this one. Most boys are aware of this, sometimes painfully so. To be told otherwise, to be asked to sit for a drawing for instance, once it was understood that they weren't being mocked for their crooked teeth or their "bad" skin, while it didn't necessarily convince them that they were more interesting than they suspected, could, and often did, suggest that there might be something there, though they'd no suspicion what or where that might be, that someone else, even if only another boy, had noticed and liked. Many of them, after some none too subtle or gentle cajoling, were at least willing to allow for the possibility and see what came of the experiment. Usually, all that came of it was a brief sketch. Sometimes though...

I've mentioned here before that, from childhood, people have been at me to draw them, and that I was quick to learn that however sincerely most people make such a request, or demand, they don't mean it. Many if not most people would like to think they have a personality and a face that might lend itself to being sketched, at least, just the once, if only by me, but very few people who ask, or demand, have actually thought much about just what it might be that provides interest in the individual human visage, or what it might mean to see one's kisser, however attractive it may be assumed to be in three dimensions, when reduced to two. Drawing a good likeness, of even a very young and attractive person, of either sex, at least for someone like me, has all to do with what makes a face individual, rather than beautiful, per se. I may have an eye for beauty, but not a very good hand for it. Put it another way: what I like best in a face, even a face I find specially attractive, need not be what its owner would think, and even if it is a dazzling smile, or lovely dark eyes, or whatever's been made mention of before by other admirers, for whatever reason I'm usually drawn to to the one sharp canine or the weary little wrinkle, to what others, including the person who may heretofore been otherwise either unaware or horribly self-conscious about these details, would either not notice or would rather that no one else did.

They've studied babies, you know, really quite new babies, and found that lovely faces make them smile. It's instinctive, evidently. And what makes a baby smile tends to be exactly what would make the rest of us older, hairier humans respond positively to another human face: symmetry, first and foremost; the equality of features and the balance in their distribution, so that one lovely eye is always paired with another on the same plane, lips and teeth likewise evenly arranged left to right, cheekbones, chin, forehead, all just where they should be and in proportion, each to the others according to some formula apparently settled long since by the trial and error of evolution or the Deity. At least among the cognizant, adult population, this obviously does not preclude the possibility of finding a face other than that of the venus de milo either attractive or lovable. If it did, of course, for the vast majority of human beings, there'd be little chance of making new human beings, those very babies who, in all innocence, seem to judge the rest of us so harshly. Character for instance, which babies, rather selfishly tend to reduce to the willingness of the beings around them to feed and comfort them, becomes a more complex business as we mature, and something we look for in other people's faces. The poet, George Crabbe, in his Tales of the Hall, says somewhere that, “The face the index of a feeling mind.” That sort of thing begins to matter more to us, one would at least hope, when we cease to be babies.

What I liked best, lets be honest, about drawing boys back in the day, was the possibility of getting their clothes off them. As I say, worked now and then, too. Adults I drew to flatter them in a different way, mostly; because I admired them, as teachers or personalities, and wanted their praise. Didn't turn out to be nearly as gratifying as I'd hoped. Most of them, if they saw the results, even if they'd asked to see them, tended to be more pained than pleased. Turns out, adult vanity is a far more delicate thing than a teenager's, a teenaged boy's anyway. Didn't draw girls nearly so much. Go figure. While adult males, much to my surprise, tended to be, as a group, if nothing else, fairly good humored, and while adult females, bewilderingly, seemed invariably to blame themselves for any flaws exaggerated by my pencil, my fellow male homosexuals have turned out to be the least likely to appreciate the gift of caricature. Might seem an obvious, even stereotypical assumption to make, but I fail to get this. If men are almost always more vain then women, then gay men, after say the age of twenty one or thereabouts, and gods know, after forty! are perhaps the most sensitive subjects of all. Even if I still wanted to, getting into a gay man's pants with a pencil would not seem to be an option anymore, at least for me. Even getting a laugh out of these queens would sometimes seem to be much harder than it ought to be. However affectionate I may mean to be, it sometimes seems that most gay men, even the most wickedly self-satirical, even old friends, do not always appreciate even the warmest of my little jokes -- if it means showing their crows-feet, or their bald-spot, or exaggerating slightly, or even just noting accurately, a paunch.

(Dykes, by the way, have been uniformly the first to laugh, and the first to ask for an original drawing. This, I should hope, rather undermines, in a small way, that business of just who it is in our community who hasn't much of a sense of humor about themselves, now doesn't it?)

But honestly, I am the problem, or rather, the narrowness of my gift would seem to be. I suppose that if I could draw people as they saw themselves, or at least as they would most wish to be seen, I might even have made a kind of living by drawing. The trouble is, I don't see that way. Even the people I might most admire, even people I think most attractive, even the people I actually love, I find... funny, for want of a better word. I see myself as a rather absurd figure most of the time. I see other people as such, more often than not, as well. I think, as human beings, as among the most remarkable achievements of evolution, we are nevertheless all surprisingly odd looking, each in his or her own way, and that frankly fascinates me. However much I may admire the way someone writes, or thinks or makes art, however attractive I may find a particular face or person, I can't seem to help myself. I find almost everyone funny. When I draw someone, even or specially someone I admire, it isn't the "flaws" I look for, or any supposed imperfections I find myself exaggerating, as it is what is most human and ridiculous in even the best people and or the most interesting faces that I try to reproduce on paper. I also find my inspiration most often in some particular of a book title, or an author's photo, or something in the publicity surrounding a new book, that tickles me enough to want to draw a picture. May be a lack of seriousness in myself, or a refusal to take anything I do too seriously, but I can't seem to take even literature, or the people who make well, it all together seriously. I have tried. Doesn't work out very well, usually. Solemnity and awe just aren't something I can successfully convey with a pencil and paper.

I once painstakingly drew what I'd hoped would be a very respectful likeness of James Baldwin, who had only just died. He was the writer I may well have admired most at that time, and I very much wanted to honor his memory. I took quite uncharacteristically long over that drawing. I was careful to exaggerate nothing, to reproduce the photo I was working from as exactly as I could. The result was hideous, a grotesque that more than one person who saw it expressed a genuine concern that that drawing was likely to get me labeled a racist. I loved Baldwin! I loved his writing, his speaking, his face. I thought, and still think that James Baldwin had one of the best faces of recent times. Yes, he described himself as being ugly, and I am not suggesting that I didn't see that, or that I somehow saw past that, but rather that I thought I might be able to show in a drawing, even more than in the photograph from which I was working, how really amazingly wonderful Baldwin's face could be, particularly, as in the photograph, when he laughed. I thought I might just have captured that joy.

When I showed that drawing to someone I trusted, someone I'd drawn and who had actually been delighted with the drawing I'd done of him, he told me, "You really must never show this to anyone else, ever." I never did. The last time I looked at it, some time later, I could see nothing of either joy, or the effort I'd made, only how ugly not James Baldwin, but my drawing was. I threw it away, and I've never tried to draw that marvelous face again.

Yet obviously, I'm still at it. I'm good at it. I'm not good at many things, but I don't think it is saying too much for myself to suggest that, at least in an amateur way, I'm good at this. I've confined myself, for the most part recently, to either quickly doodling people unawares, or drawing authors, as they are public figures, if now only in a somewhat minor way, and ought therefore to expect a certain amount of probably unwanted attention. I've had the very happy experience of hearing from some of the people I've drawn to post here, and been told that I made my subjects laugh. Nothing so gratifying. I've offered the originals to a number of my subjects, and had some who've been quite eager to have them. I've even been brave enough recently to offer the originals to some folks I knew not at all, and have been pleasantly surprised by the response from most.

One friend who was not amused, at all by the drawing I did, when pressed, said that he neither liked nor understood the point of caricature. I don't know, considering his sophistication and education, and his sense of humor as evidenced elsewhere, that he would say such a thing of satire in any other form, or any other sort of literary pasquinade, but with unflattering pictures, at least of himself and presumably other authors, he will have no truck. Obviously, I think he's wrong. Just as obviously, had I known him better or suspected his disapproval before I spent a few hours drawing him in what I'd hoped was a no less flattering than amusing light, I wouldn't have drawn him at all. I was genuinely mortified to learn I'd offended him, specially as I'd hoped more than anything to make him smile, even laugh. I did not however destroy the drawing, or even take it down from here. It is a good one, I still think, and a tribute, I still say, however insignificant, to how seriously I take what he's written and how much I admire him. I seldom can bring myself to draw people I do not, in some way admire or at least find significant. No one does a caricature of people one would expect to go otherwise unnoticed. I certainly don't sit peering through two pairs of glasses, drawing and erasing and drawing yet again someone's left ear without thinking there is more than to the head it hangs on than I can do justice to in an evening.

(Why I'd never make much of a political cartoonist, I suppose, politicians' faces tend to be roughly as interesting as their ideas.)

If one were to detect a lingering hurt in that last bit, doubtlessly any objective observer would call that only fair. Fair enough. Nevertheless, I will defend what I do not just for the pleasure it brings me, and most of the people I choose to draw, but as a legitimate form of both art and flattery. No one would take such pains, for the most part, but to comment on a face with something significant in it. Everyone needn't like what I do, but there is thought, and feeling in it.

Which is why I'm rather hoping, if most past experience is any index, that I didn't just make a special trip to the post office on my lunch hour just to provide a few people with something with which to line a birdcage or start a small fire. Remains to be seen, hereafter -- or not.

Daily Dose

From The Poetical Works of Oliver Goldsmith, edited with an introduction and notes by Austin Dobson


"Our modern bards! why what a pox
Are they but senseless stones and blocks?"

From A New Simile: In the Manner of Swift

Friday, February 18, 2011

Reflections, a poem by George Crabbe

Daily Dose

From The Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse, chosen by David Nichol Smith


"... Knowledge dwells
In heads replete with thoughts of other men;
Wisdom in minds attentive to their own."

From Winter Scene, by William Cowper

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Petit poème humoristique dans court (Clerihew, in short)


What now to do
With Montesquieu?
What spoiled customer pays,
Nowadays, for just Pensées?

Sand County Clerihew


Aldo Leopold
Found, as he grew old,
That harmony of men and land
Was not proceeding just as planned.

Covert Clerihew


Double agents, traitors, spies,
Gross betrayals, murders, lies:
Not the worst
Of Alan Furst.

Clerihew of Influences


Dame Anita Brookner
Obviously took her
Cues as much from the late Henry James
As from Austen, whom everyone blames.

Processed Philosophical Clerihew


Though he is quite dead,
Alfred North Whitehead,
While his influence here has waned,
Perhaps above he's been sustained.

Daily Dose

From The Narrative Poems of William Shakespeare, edited by Jonathan Crewe


"I weep for thee and yet no cause I have"

From The Passionate Pilgrim, #10

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Atheistic Clerihew


Bertrand Russell
Left the bustle
Of this life long ago,
Headed nowhere, high or low.

Model Clerihew


Who'd peg
Bill Clegg
As the Great White Hope
For (twice) kicking dope?

Daily Dose

FromThe Poetical Works of George Crabbe, edited by A.J Carlyle and R. M. Carlyle


"Here all the rage of controversy ends,
And rival zealots rest like bosom-friends"

From The Library

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Clerihew of the Happy Islands


A new fantasy begins
With Ursula K. Le Guin's,
As nowhere in the trilogy
Do racists rule the Earth, you see.

Daily Dose

From The Poetical Works of George Crabbe, edited by A. J. Carlyle and R. M. Carlyle


"To other worlds with cheerful view he looks,
And parts the night between repose and books."

From The Borough, Letter XXIV, Schools

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton


"Let him not be alone or idle (in any kind of melancholy); but still accompanied with such friends and familiars he most affects, neatly dressed, washed and combed, according to his ability at least, in clean sweet linen, spruce, handsome, decent, and good apparel; for nothing sooner dejects a man than want, squalor, nastiness, foul or old cloaths out of fashion."

From Part 2, Section 5, Member 1, Cure of Melancholy

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton


"You have heard my tale: but alas! it is but a tale, a mere fiction, 'twas never so, never like to be, and so let it rest."

From Remedies Against Discontents, Member 7

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rain Doodle

Rain Doodle

Daily Dose

From Readings in Crabbe, Tales of the Hall, abridged and adapted by Edward Fitzgerald


"Try half a page, and then can taste no more,
But the dull volume to its place restore"

From The Morning Walk

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Forgiveness of Sins

Socrates' old boy, and first of the Cynics, Antisthenes, enjoined us to observe our enemies, for they first find out our faults. Been thinking about just who our enemies might be, in the book business, and about our faults. For months now, nothing has been so much discussed among the Independents as the long anticipated bankruptcy-filing of Borders. The language employed in the official organs of the trade has been dispassionate, even respectful, if not of current management, then certainly of the company that operates more than five hundred bookstores and employs hundreds, if not thousands of booksellers. Had this restructuring happened a decade ago, there would not have been anything like this restraint. Then, Borders and Barnes & Noble were widely seen as the ruin of the business; corporate bullies who had forced Independents out of our traditional markets by means of expensive, and targeted marketing, deep, if often temporary customer-discounts, and inventory and labor management practices that valued appearance over content and friendly service over experience. The model of constant expansion, into ever shrinking markets, had undermined traditional competition. As giant "superstores" became ubiquitous, even local institutions, to say nothing of small time operators, had no draw on loyalty that could compensate the customer for convenience, speed, and accessibility. These oversized new national players also compromised the integrity of even the most venerable American publishers, with sweetheart bulk-discounts and preferential delivery-dates that ruined the relationships, carefully cultivated for decades, between the publishers and booksellers. From the publishers' perspective, at least among the biggest players, whatever the short-term economic benefits of all those huge initial orders, in the long term, the control by these retail behemoths of the backlist that had traditionally sustained the book business -- control exercised by nationally coordinated returns, centralized buying and a new emphasis on turnover, ultimately determining which backlist titles would live or die -- helped to transform what had been the publishers' primary resource into a liability. More than any internal development in publishing, we owe the triumph of the bestseller over the backlist to the corporate sellers. So, twenty years ago, even ten, there would not have been a bookseller, an editor, or small publisher at least, in the United States, who would not have publicly, or at least privately, expressed some relief to see such a tyrant falter and fall.

That's what they did. What we did, those of us still working in independent bookstores, was react -- when we finally did -- largely just as the strategic planners at the big chains probably had predicted we would: insisting that our customers didn't care how expensive books might be so long as we did everything else so much better: things like customer service, special orders, community relations and stocking and selling the backlist. Well, our customers did and do care about the outrageous cost of books in America, and clearly, we didn't do everything, or even most things, any better than we ever had, which wasn't very well, and we certainly didn't do enough, or do it soon enough, to keep up with all the changes in a technologically advancing marketplace. Turns out, they were better at addressing most of that than we were. The list of our sins, both of omission and commission, would probably be at least as long as that of the big chains, and in the end, no more forgivable, if the goal was staying in business, anyway. Not to rehearse the whole sorry history, but it might be important, just here, to at least acknowledge our own culpability in supporting an increasingly corrupt system of publishing that overproduced indifferently made and or inferior books, sold them at inflated prices, and in inflated numbers to retailers, without any immediate consequences for us, as we just returned all the junk that didn't sell, and then ordered more junk to replace it. We insisted, right up almost to the end, that our experience and taste, our professionalism and our loyalty to the literary heritage would save us. It hasn't, and it was perhaps less true than we still like to tell ourselves. The proof? Well, when we still had the power to influence things like the price of a paperback classic and to protest the millions wasted on the promotion of inferior goods, we either didn't do much of anything or at least not enough to support fair prices and better standards and we actively participated in profiting from the decline of quality in what we sold even as we insisted we were only doing it so as to keep Austen on the shelf.

(Worth noting just how few writers, at least initially, shared in this industry distrust of the new corporate model. Most that I knew were thrilled to find themselves on the shelves in a national chain, to be invited to read in such handsomely appointed settings, to not have to deal directly with the prejudices and eccentricities of individual bookstores. More than one writer of my acquaintance, finding a new Borders or Barnes & Noble opening in their home-town, was glad to extol the virtues of better lighting, better coffee, and softer chairs, then only found in these new palaces of books. Must have been thrilling. Even as the independents who might have hand-sold a writer's first efforts, folded all around them, couldn't really blame most writers for being glad of the opportunity to be featured nationally. It seems to me that other than a few radicals with established cult followings, the contented local writers writing exclusively for local audiences, and Stephen King, there were no real critics of the new system among the professional writers, until, that is, they saw their own backlist disappearing onto the remainder tables. Must have been, I'm sure, but I don't remember them. Likewise now, I would be hard pressed to find a serious novelist or established genre writer who hasn't eagerly embraced the new technology of ebooks and the rapidly expanding model of direct deals with online retailers. Can't blame them. Must seem a perfect solution to the taxing hassle of selling books to agents, editors and publishers for only a small percentage of the profits, if any, realized by even established writers from most books published in the United States. Remains to be seen, I suppose, just how this new way of publishing will ultimately serve to sustain an individual writer's readership if and when a reputation might be made only in the wider democracy online, without editors, booksellers, publishers' reps, local newspaper and national reviewers, and all the other "middlemen" who's business it has traditionally been to support our best writers. Just imagine, having nothing but the amateur Amazon recommendation, social media and a blog or two, no bigger than this, from which to cobble together a writer's character. Sounds like very hard work. )

At first, that note of reserve in the almost daily updates on Borders' financial crisis in the books press struck me as hypocritical. Like some aging grand dame, well past her best days, but by no means willing to abandon her place at the ball entirely to the inexplicable popularity of these boisterous and flashy "new people," one sensed that watching one of the dominant parvenus slip into embarrassment, while deeply satisfying, was almost, but not quite, beneath the dignity of any notice at all beyond a plain and withering recitation of the bare facts. No further comment really required, dear, saw it coming for years now. There was also the distinct possibility that it wouldn't do to gloat, because first, one now had so few contemporaries left to appreciate the delicious irony, and then the unhappy fact of being none too confident in one's own ability still to get up even the energy required to dance on a grave.

All of which makes the actual response among the booksellers I know to the news of Borders' failure all the more interesting. Privately, I have not heard a single coworker who still remembers, as I do, days gone by, say anything on this subject that mightn't be said, if not in the actual presence of the Board of Directors, or whoever is still nominally in charge of Borders, then certainly before their unhappy employees. Without actually having much sympathy for the investors in Borders, I'd have to say that the response of most independent booksellers to the failure of the company has been surprisingly decent, under the circumstances. The truth of the matter is, I suspect, that while none of us would be prepared to see anything but justice in the closing of no less then two hundred Borders stores -- presumably in just the sorts of places where Borders drove the Independents out a decade or more ago -- none of us now looks for anything much in the way of bookstores, independent or otherwise, to replace them. True, there have been one or two stories recently of independent operators setting up shop in the abandoned mall stores that used to be Walden Books, but the trend would seem to be all together otherwise; when the chains go from most places, so go books. In a time and an atmosphere when our public libraries are often the first casualties of the economic pressures to reduce any opportunities for poor people to access anything other than popular, corporately produced entertainment and news, and when the influence of so called cultural elites -- meaning an educated and politically sophisticated, meaning liberal, middle class -- is under relentless attack from the shills of the Right in this country, those of us still peddling books might do well to not crow too loudly when the entertainment divisions of international corporate conglomerates decide to largely walk away from the book business all but all together. So, we haven't, much.

Besides, just how grateful ought we to be to regain some measure of the ground we lost, when that property has been so thoroughly exhausted by irresponsible husbandry, absentee landlords and locals alike?

And then of course there is the irrelevance of nearly all of this industry tumult and soap opera in the face of the new technology and the online retailers whose business it would seem to be to do away with the selling of physical books all together. Makes everyone a little skittish about being smug, that does.

Nevertheless, when, in the next week or so, Borders finally goes to court to file for protection from its creditors, however sympathetic I might be personally to the employees who stand to lose their jobs, and however the collapse of one of the biggest national retailers of books might presage further unhappy news for booksellers in general, I think it safe to say I will not be among the mourners, but I won't feel much like dancing either. We'd better see to our own doorsteps.

What, after all, did the big chains do, for the most part, but do what we did better, faster, and more profitably, for awhile anyway? We would do well to mind our business, and profit from the example of what they, and we, did wrong, as well as what they did right. We still in the book business, at every level from corporate giants to small presses, from major retailers to mom & pop operations, from professional writers to weekend online reviewers, might do well to meditate, at least for a day or two, on the sin of hubris. There but for the grace...

Besides, as Oscar said, "Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

Daily Dose

How to Read Me

To turn my volumes o’er nor find
(Sweet unsuspicious friend!)
Some vestige of an erring mind
To chide or discommend,

Believe that all were lov’d like you
With love from blame exempt,
Believe that all my griefs were true
And all my joys but dreamt.

-- Walter Savage Landor

Thursday, February 10, 2011

All Unmourned and Unknown

Ah, the wonders of "new media." I wrote a piece the other night, in tribute to a neighborhood bookstore that is going out of business to make way for a bank. First bookstore to hire me when we moved to Seattle, just up the street from the store where I work now. Good neighbors. We still visit. Will be missed. The piece I wrote got picked up by the local newspaper blog-of-record, and brought me an unusual number of readers, and the bookstore where I used to work some additional attention. All to the good.

The editor who linked to my post is one of the last literary gents hereabouts with any real influence, an admirable critic and reviewer, and an amiable fellow altogether. I'm glad to claim his acquaintance. He's been very kind to my brief efforts here, a good customer at the bookstore where I work, and, in my experience at his periodic shindigs/salon for the local literati, librarians, and booksellers, etc., has proved himself an excellent host. A good man, is Paul Constant.

However, in his entirely too flattering introduction to my post, he said a couple of things at which I initially took some umbrage. (Always just there for the taking, I find, but that's as I am.) Before citing what I'd written as an exception, he bemoaned "the inevitable maudlin goodbyes to bookstores that are closing" and suggested that the more usual valedictories tend to "overstate the importance of the bookshop." That last statement particularly, if specific, seemed to me perhaps a bit insensitive, and if meant generally -- as in the importance of bookshops to civilization, literature, etc. -- then downright pugnacious.

Paul is a newspaperman. A rare thing, nowadays, perhaps even rarer than a real bookseller, and as much if not more to be mourned for their passing into history. In addition, he is a genuine force for good online, as a contributor and editor at The Slog. He regularly champions, in print and online, the independent bookstore, and is always quick to note any loss in the local scene. He is not shy of the barricades.

I ought to have kept all this in mind as I read, but I'm afraid I assumed a rather alarming subtext to his comments, perhaps not immediately discernible to a less tetchy reader. Mr. Constant has made no secret of his growing impatience with the enemies of new technology, and with the blinkered nostalgia and sentimentality that tends to loudly gasp and sigh and drown-out with the gnashing of teeth, among the print-reactionaries, any and all sensible discussion of books and the ways people now buy and read them. I myself could justly be accused of having contributed something, in my own small way, to thoughtless, gloomy din now surrounding this subject. An increasingly unstable livelihood would seem to have made alarmists of us all, in the bricks-and-mortar book business. Nervous, to put it nicely. However innocent he may have been of any such implication, I thought I heard a shushing in there somewhere.

Now I've had some time to consider, I really must apologize to Paul for reading so far into what he wrote. Hardly gracious of me, under the very appreciative circumstances. I now doubt that he meant any such thing. Rather, he was perhaps, quite rightly, I think, all too gently chiding all of us with some interest in books and bookshops who have made a habit of mourning, for failing so frequently to distinguish the casualties of economics, or in this case real estate, from the general trend to The End of Civilization As We Know It.

It seems, not a sparrow falls, but the faithful see signs and wonders predicting the end of days.

The trend, it's true, at least in so far as my own prospects of a sure and comfortable retirement are concerned, are not frankly what they might once have been. Likewise, I should think, for most booksellers not tethered to a headset and a keypad somewhere in the deep, dark bowels of Amazon, though even there, there must by now be a few unquiet nights. In traditional publishing, at magazines, and newspapers, among stationers -- if such is even still an occupation legal to list on a passport -- anywhere that people earn their daily bread, and digestive-correcting-daily-yogurt, as we tend to all be getting a little older, there is an uncertainty that has made Casandras of us all. I know I am lucky to still work where I do, and intend, should things go entirely to Hell, to pin my hopes to the university's football franchise and will willingly learn to fold tee shirts, if that's what it takes to see me through to my dotage. And if there were a way to shake the loose change from a Kindle or an iPad, believe me, I'm not be too proud to shimmy like my sister, Kate.

The longer I've pondered all this tonight though, the more I've come to share Paul's point of view when it comes to the general tenor of the common bookstore obituary. Even as our old enemy, Borders Books and Music, totters on, hour to hour, refusing even now to pitch into the plot we've been tending with such anticipation for years, we independents, new and used, still rush to the bedside of any fading peddler, however remote from ourselves and what we do, and chorus the "Lacrimosa," loud and long as we can. It's become about as noisy and insincere as the paid ululation at an Irish banker's wake.

The truth is that not all bookstores deserve so many volunteers to unhitch the horses and pull the hearse. As a life-long customer and long-time bookseller, I can tell you that there are, or were anyway, as many or more bad bookstores as good. I've shopped in dozens, in cities far and wide, domestic and foreign, and I've worked in more than one. If no one remembers them now that so many are gone, that is just as it should be. Any public fuss made at the hour of their passing was wasted.

I will not name names, or speak ill of the dead, but anyone whose experience is roughly as mine will remember going into many a seedy, filthy little shop, run by illiterate junk-dealers, full of trash and frequented, as Orwell so perfectly put it in his "Bookshop Memories," by "decayed" persons "smelling of old breadcrusts." Anyone who has had to work in such holes, and for such questionable characters as Orwell's "McKechnie," from Keep the Aspidistra Flying, will admit to a shiver of traumatic recognition when first that novel was read. How these shady, rag-and-bone operations survive has always confused me. Disorganized, dirty, and cluttered with unclaimed stock, how is it their tenants pay the rent?

At the opposite end of the economy are all the fussy little parlor-shops of the snobbish antiquarian kind, where every customer off the common street is eyed disdainfully before being grudgingly admitted by a buzzer that unlocks the bolted dutch-door. When I lived in San Francisco, there was an anonymous commercial hive of these precious dealers; each with his little room, empty of all but a case of carefully soaped leather bindings, each with a tiny white paper-tag, the price so discreet as to be invisible, if no less shockingly inflated when at last deciphered. What trust-fund, or remittance-money, I've always wondered, finances these antisocial aesthetes in their sepulchral little whitenesses?

Fewer now will remember the first iteration of the blandly uniform company shops that once proliferated like mushrooms, from strip-mall to strip-mall across America, but I can still close my eyes and picture the deadly bright cheeriness that pervaded all such places; a matter of policy, devoid of any intent but moving merch come Mother's Day and Christmas. There was a time, in my rude youth, when I was dazzled just to see so many books in one place, but, having been just last year in a surviving example, the empty, antiseptic atmosphere, the underpaid, elderly lady left to run the place with no help but one bored teenager, the smell of desperation and forgetfulness, drove me from the place as from beggar's blanket display of discarded magazines. Too sad.

As to the listing retail giants who once were perfect imitations of the great bookstores, down to the deep stock of backlist fiction, leather armchairs and high shelves, that business model has long since been abandoned as unprofitable -- well before, in fact, the coming of the online merchants and the big box bulk retailers. The first branch of Borders Books and Music I was ever in was beautiful. No other word for it. For some time thereafter, every time I went into one of that company's "superstores," I made note of exactly the same definitive, three volumed edition of a standard life of Otto von Bismarck. One day, it was gone, from all of them, never to return. I would guess this happened not long after the original owners sold their company, or when it was sold again thereafter. Like their slightly healthier twin, Borders now is a just an overdecorated coffee shop, full of cheap children's remainders, loud music and brightly painted mugs, all with inspirational sayings suggestive of the superiority and sexiness of "girls" who read. Sad, really. Sadder still, the independents who would still imitate these now empty imitations with bland corporate signage, and shelves crowded with chotchkies where the books should be.

How many silly little specialty shops have I been in and passed out of speculating if, when next I pass that way, it will be a bagel-dog stand or a pet supply store? Some dear soul's dream of a Kinder Korner or Tea & Titles -- to just, I hope, make up a not too implausible sign above the belled door -- I never wish them ill, but I do wonder that the write-off for their husbands' taxes will prove worth the heartbreak.

I'll stop. Just one last word on the dozens if not hundreds of badly managed, poorly stocked, or overstocked, independents in unlikely and unprofitable places: down blind alleys, up deserted streets, tucked above dance-bars, marooned in remote woody cottages, or dockside at abandoned fun-fairs, and all, all with no better business plan than the way most of us would seem to be able to manage a mortgage. Best to look away.

And yet, for all the unmourned and unknown, there are great bookshops worth frequenting still, in every city at least worthy of the name that I've ever been in, and in many a town too. We still in the trade may be forgiven for making so much of the passing of such as these at least, I should think. I know Paul would agree.

Better of course, as doubtless Mr. Constant would insist, those of us still in the trade put away our hankies and work to keep the best of our bookshops open. He'll do his part. Best we do likewise.